Feature

On Fusion Cooking

Mongolian BBQ Veal Chop
Mongolian BBQ Veal Chop

“The fires of fusion are coming.”
—Norman Van Aken, On Fusion Cooking 1988

Thirty years ago I wrote the words above sitting in a small, unpainted wooden building in Key West, our southernmost of the contiguous forty-eight states. The building had most recently housed a woman’s hair parlor. It was a perfect place to be gazing out ‘a porthole’, as I look back on it all now.

When I wrote On Fusion Cooking in 1988, I did so as a means to understand where I thought I should take my own personal cooking. I was not seeking to navigate a route for others. But maybe luck would have it that, as I leaned away from conventional cuisine and craned forward like a voyager in the bow of a ship heading into the wind, I read the words of the French philosopher-historian Jean-François Revel. It was his seminal work, ‘Culture and Cuisine: A Journey Through the History of Food‘, that helped me to focus my spyglass on the cuisine that America would soon be belly-deep in.

Today, some still dispute the use of the word “fusion” as it applies to cuisine. But even those who claim to adhere to tradition, who wish they could tamp the fires of fusion I said were coming, now read modern menus which are illuminated by those very flames.

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A book arrived at our home last month. I ordered it out of curiosity for the title, as well as respect for the authorship behind it (Saveur). The title is The Way We Cook, and the beautiful John Thorne quote helps lead it off: “To Cook is to lay hands on the body of the World.”

The day it appeared I began pouring over its pages. And I got hungry. The images in it are irresistible. One of my former chefs had given us some biscuits and homemade butter the day before, after a fine lunch featuring fried catfish and a lamb belly BLT. The next morning, I tasted the biscuit straight from the bag and worried that it seemed a little bland, but my faith in this chef is high so I didn’t give up. I fired up the toaster oven and let a biscuit heat while the home-churned butter tempered on the stone counter beside the wooden knife block.

I retrieved my coffee and when the timer bell dinged, I pulled the now toasty biscuit out and carefully sliced it in half laterally, taking care with the delicate crumbly texture. I dabbed the butter, noting its salt as I licked my thumb. The butter relaxed into and along the biscuit’s crenellations. I took a bite. The oven’s warmth had ignited the biscuit’s arc of possibilities.

And the butter itself offered an even greater revelation. All over again I was reminded of what power lies in homemade things. The butter was at once sweet with a knife’s edge of salt. Then it conveyed a faint murmur of funkiness, finally intimating cheese-like depths. It was as if eating butter on biscuits before this had been like skimming along on the surface of a placid lake in a quiet skiff-and then, for the first time-plunging an oar into the water and touching a sandy, earthy bottom a few meters below me. My perception was enlarged by this expanded realization of what butter should be.

After lingering over the Saveur book’s images, I studied its list of recipes. Here I saw Fusion within the framework of Tradition, which always gives it her very best chance of being revelatory, as well as delicious—the most important quality of all! I praise the world that contains the craftsmen and craftswomen who tend to traditions. (I am one of them, much of the time, in my commitment to properly made food.) I don’t often like food that requires explanations or needs quotation marks around its descriptions. I love the artisanal foods. Food that is what it says it is cannot be forsaken.

“Make no mistake about it: the great preponderance of the evidence argues against a permanence in anybody’s food heritage. We have all grown up believing in the principle of culinary authenticity and tradition as an axiom of human civilization, but the norm around the world has been change, transience.”
-Raymond Sokolov, Why We Eat What We Eat

I order classic French fries in a Parisian bistro and know that potatoes were not cooked in France until the 17th century and, according to one theory, may not be French at all, but Flemish. I notice Calabrian Ricotta with Coffee Mousse on a menu in a café in Florence and think of the ships that first carried coffee beans to Venice in the 16th century, not to mention the Muslim traders with the methodology to make the coffee. I lust for the taste of pork from a Guatemalan food truck in Los Angeles and remember that no pork existed in that Central American land prior to the Columbian food exchange between the Old and New Worlds in the 15th century. Thus our much-extolled notion of authenticity is a thoroughly modern construct. And fusion, far from being a newish idea, has been part of a culinary continuum … well … forever.

“From my point of view, the future of our cuisine lies in Fusion.”
-Libby H. O’Connell, Chief Historian at the History Channel

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