The other day a friend of mine took a restaurant tour around Toronto with some out-of-town foodies. I asked him what was the most memorable food they ate.
"Moss," he said. "Frozen moss." He said it tasted slightly earthy.
I wasn't that surprised. The newest thing in haute cuisine is dirt. You can eat dirt at a restaurant called Actinolite, which has been called "one of the most essential places to eat in Ontario, if not in Canada." The dirt they serve up isn't just any old dirt. It's gourmet dirt. "You want soil that is near maples and pines," said the chef, Justin Cournoyer, who personally goes out into the woods to find it. "If it's too into the pines, it's too acidic."
I always thought the idea was to remove the dirt from your food, not add it. But I am not a gastronome. Modern chefs believe a little dirt simply takes the concept of terroir to its logical conclusion. In Tokyo, a restaurant called Ne Quittez Pas offers a six-course soil dinner that includes soil soup, fresh truffles with soil, and soil sorbet. Evidently it's quite popular. As the chef, Toshio Tanabe, reminds us, nothing could be more natural. Pregnant women have been eating dirt for years.
And starving Irish peasants ate moss – not because they liked it, but because that's all there was. One of the hottest trends in current cuisine is to eat the types of food our impoverished ancestors ate in desperation when they had no other choice. This is the basis of the nose-to-tail movement, which makes a fetish of utilizing every part of the animal. It is environmentally conscientious because you don't waste a thing. Ears, trotters, tongue, eyeballs, intestines – it all goes down the hatch! You can find many delicious recipes on the Internet, including one for boiled sheep's head. Hint: Unless you are a professional, do not try to cut the head in two.
These food trends are symptomatic of a culture that is ravenous for novelty. People's palates are jaded, and all other food trends have been exhausted. Times have changed since I was young. Back then, there was no novelty. Toronto had one French restaurant, and the most exotic dish I had ever heard of was escargots.
Then came the Golden Age of food. Julia Child was the most famous chef in the world, and we struggled to master the art of boeuf bourguignon. After that came Asian, when every sophisticated person learned to eat raw fish. Then came back-to-the-land. We happily parted with minor fortunes for the privilege of eating animals that were organically and humanely raised and plants that were foraged from the woods, all served up on authentic slabs of the Canadian Shield.
There seemed to be nowhere left to go. But there's always somewhere left to go. We have arrived at the age of extreme food, in which chefs are like rock stars, and can make their fame and fortune by offering fresh sensations to exhausted foodies with deep pockets.
In fact, the most extreme food that you can eat today isn't dirt or moss. Instead of natural, low-tech and rather primitive, it is just the opposite – artificial, high-tech and extremely futuristic. It is known as "Modernist Cuisine," and it makes the world's most sophisticated foodies swoon into an ecstatic trance.
Modernist cuisine is based on something called molecular gastronomy. It is very scientific. It has been called the most influential food movement of our time. It's called modernist because when you look at the food on the plate, you have no idea what it is. Not a single dish is anything you would recognize, or have ever eaten, or even anything you could possibly dream up.
The leading practitioners of modernist cuisine are Nathan Myhrvold (an eccentric multimillionaire from Microsoft) and Ferran Adria (who used to cook at El Bulli, which foodies swear was the best restaurant on the planet ). Here are some examples of modernist cuisine: roses with ham wonton and melon water; clusters of pressure-cooked mustard seeds with squid ink; and something called Kellog's paella, made with Rice Krispies, shrimp heads, and vanilla-flavoured mashed potatoes. Dinners can go on for 50 courses. One recent dinner, hosted by Mr. Myhrvold in his lab, concluded with an absinthe cocktail topped with a swirling sugar mold made with a 3D printer.
Mr. Myrhvold has written a 2,438-page book called Modernist Cuisine, which you can buy for $625 (U.S.). You can try the recipes at home, if your home includes a lab with a centrifuge and some nitrous oxide. A typical recipe step, cited in The New York Times, reads: "Cavitate in an ultrasonic cleaning bath for 30 minutes."
If all this makes you long for a hamburger, you're not alone. I've eaten my share of fine-ish food , and I've enjoyed every bite. But after we pay the eye-popping bill, and stagger home, and tell our friends about the amazing things we ate, I hear a nagging little voice. It was only food, it says. It all winds up in the same place.
I don't think it's any accident that the age of extreme food is also the age of extreme food disorders, in which people (mostly women) express their neuroses (as they used to be called) through their relationship with food. Anorexia, bulimia, veganism and the strange epidemic of gluten-aversion are just some examples of how our food obsessions can unbalance us.
People used to be obsessed with food when they didn't have enough. Now we are obsessed with food because of its abundance. In our world, no one is ever hungry. And if Marie Antoinette were around today, she'd say: Let them eat dirt.