Food, for Salvador Dalí, was always food for thought. “The most philosophic organs man possesses are his jaws,” he solemnly informs, in The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (1942), because “it is at the supreme moment of reaching the marrow of anything that you discover the very taste of truth.” An appetizer of snails prompts the revelation that Freud owed his genius to his snail-shaped cranium: “His brain is in the form of a spiral—to be extracted with a needle!” A pair of fried eggs remind him of eyes, for Dalí the source of life’s most rapturous pleasures, though his Inner Freudian must have known that they double as testicles (huevos, in Spanish slang) or, for that matter, breasts. Speaking of Freud, the taste of marrow strikes Dalí as “spermatozoal,” and he has a thing for lima beans, that “extraordinary vegetable which so greatly resembles a prepuce.”
Over the course of his life, Dalí kept his gay inclinations locked in the closet, sublimating them into his art and, if The Secret Life is any indicator, his gastronomic obsessions. He cathected his favorite foods with enough libidinous energy to make one of his flaccid watches stand to attention. True to his Freudian orality, Dalí claimed that his mouth was the source of his greatest sexual pleasures. Of course, as with all of us, his true erogenous zone lay between his ears.
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Appetite whetted, I tied on my lobster-telephone bib and tucked into Taschen’s new reprint of the maestro’s 1973 cookbook, Dalí: Les Dîners de Gala, a mammoth tome whose lustrous gold cover hints at decadence to come. This, after all, was the man who salivated in The Secret Life over a 16th-century recipe “for cooking turkey without killing it, so as to achieve that supreme refinement: to make it possible to eat it cooked and living.”
Unfortunately, Les Dîners de Gala is Red Lobster Surrealism. The recipes — which were created not by Dalí but by chefs at warhorses of cuisine classique like Maxim’s and Lasserre — consist of grand-hotel offerings like “Escalope of Foie Gras Wrapped in Chicken,” “Larded Meat a là Mode,” and, since this was the ‘70s, “Tropical Chicken,” which turns out to be a bird stuffed with a goop of rice, fig liquor, and, incalculably, cream cheese, then simmered into submission and smothered in gravy.
At his best, Dalí dredged up hallucinatory images of startling perversity and hilarious depravity. The dishes served up in Les Dîners de Gala are unsettling, to be sure, but not in a good way. Luridly photographed in all their quivering, aspic ghastliness, they’re a cross between the stillborn horrors in ’70s cookbooks and haute cuisine in the Escoffier style, from the days when white sauces flowed like plaster.
Les Dîners de Gala is about as “surrealist” as the chance meeting, on a dinner table, of schlock and commerce, and all the Dalínian bunkum — heavy-breathing references to “sodomized” meats, listless paintings of cutlets strewn around a barren landscape, a photo of a blood sausage undulating, Nessie-like, through a chestnut soufflé — can’t paper over that tawdry fact.
But the real problem with Dalí’s Surrealist cookbook is that it doesn’t know what Surrealist cookery is. The question may seem silly — a mere amuse-bouche — but it’s worth remembering that Surrealism, the “revolution of the mind,” didn’t set out to be just another school of painting or poetry; its “conquest of the irrational” was intended as a radically new way of viewing the world, and of living in it.
Like most self-respecting avant-gardists, the Surrealists fomented their revolution in cafés and bars, yet, oddly enough, had little to say on the subject of gastronomy. The Futurists chewed over the issue at more ruminative length. Hipster fascists with hard-ons for modernity, speed, and war, they dreamed of a New Man, virile and “metallized,” who would Make Italy Great Again. Futurism’s men of steel would subsist on “food sculptures” created with the aid of “a battery of scientific instruments,” Filippo Marinetti prophesied in The Futurist Cookbook (1932) — an uncanny premonition of the molecular gastronomy of the Catalan chef Ferran Adrià.
What would a truly Surrealist cuisine look like? It would be a thing of “convulsive” beauty (because “beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all,” quoth Breton), meaning that it wouldn’t be pretty in the food-porn sense; on the contrary, it would disturb the senses, jolt the intellect. It might play Magritte-like mind games with the diner, exploiting the slippage between appearance and reality. It might draw on the genre of the Surrealist object — a concrete representation of something seen in a dream or, more generally, any object (made, found, or altered) that gives shape to unconscious desires.
In fact, Surrealist cookery is here, and has been since the late ‘90s, when Adrià first caught the eye of the epicurean elite. The pioneer of molecular gastronomy is Futurist in his use of high-tech gadgets and esoteric techniques lifted from the food-chemistry lab (“spherification,” freezing in liquid nitrogen, the transformation of food into foams and “airs”), but Surrealist in his fascination with hybrids and juxtapositions, Duchampian “decontextualization [and] irony,” Dalínian “spectacle [and] performance,” according to a manifesto of sorts on his restaurant’s website. His avant-garde cookery gives us an idea of the sort of fare that ought to have been on the menu in Les Dîners de Gala: “mimetic peanuts,” clam merengue, tobacco-flavored foam, foie gras frozen and reduced to dust, chocolate ravioli stuffed with hare liver.
Adrià closed his restaurant, el Bulli, in 2011. Most of us couldn’t have afforded it, anyway. But none of that matters if we take Walter Benjamin at his word. In his 1929 essay “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” he introduces the concept of “profane illumination” — the radical dislocation that comes from looking at the world through Surrealist eyes, a gaze that can transform the everyday into the uncanny if the light falls just so and we’re in the right mood. The writhing, ingrown tendrils on the end of that celery root? Look closer: they make up the featureless face of an alien, all tumorous growths and wriggling tentacles. And those mutant potatoes, with their amputee stumps and flipperlike appendages: they’re abject emissaries from the underworld, sightless tubers waiting to sprout eyes in the root-cellar dark. As for that freakishly fractal, dizzily self-similar Romanesco broccoli, what vegetable intelligence lurks in that chartreuse head, a brainlike mass of buds composed of still smaller buds?
Profane illumination lurks around every corner, and might just be waiting under the dish cover.