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Image: Italian chef and restaurant owner Giorgio Locatelli gestures as he prepares to serve a Futurist menu
Alastair Grant  /  AP
Italian chef and restaurant owner Giorgio Locatelli prepares to serve the Futurist Banquet, a combination of culinary experiment, political statement and artistic stunt.
updated 3/31/2008 3:32:23 PM ET 2008-03-31T19:32:23

More than 100 well-heeled diners are sitting in the august British Library, eating a fennel slice, an olive and a kumquat while stroking pieces of velvet, silk and sandpaper. The scent of cloves wafts around the room as an airplane engine roars. And this is just the appetizer.

The main course of this unusual banquet is "Alaskan salmon in the rays of the sun with Mars sauce." Dessert is Elasticake — a fluffy pastry ball oozing blood-red zabaglione and crowned with quivering licorice antennae.

Welcome to the weird, sensory world of the Futurist Banquet — an eccentric but strangely influential combination of culinary experiment, political statement and artistic stunt served up at the library recently for an assortment of food-lovers, artists, academics and diplomats.

The menu was based on the 1932 "Futurist Cookbook" by Italian writer Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, a combination of radical manifesto, practical joke and recipe book whose dishes include chicken with ball bearings, salami cooked in coffee and eau de cologne and the enigmatically titled "Carrot + Trousers Professor."

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"Futurist food is a revolution," said Lesley Chamberlain, editor of the cookbook's English edition. "The 20th century is a century of revolutions. This is perhaps the funniest one, the one you have to take least seriously — but one we are still living with."

Marinetti coined the term Futurism for the art movement he founded in 1909. Intended as a celebration of modernity and a rejection of romance and sentiment, it was dedicated to modernity and speed, to the violent, the urban and the mechanical.

Its followers were famed for playful, provocative pranks and manifestos — and, less appealingly, for an uneasy but enduring allegiance to the Fascist movement led by Benito Mussolini.

For the Futurists, food was about art, not sustenance. A meal should be a feast for all the senses, as well as a rejection of bourgeois values. Marinetti was the sworn enemy of comfort food — he caused a sensation by proposing that pasta be banned on the grounds that it promoted "lethargy, pessimism, nostalgic inactivity and neutralism."

Image: The dish is made of olive, hart of fennel and sugar syrup cooked kumquat
Alastair Grant  /  AP
The first course of the Futurist Banquet
Turning Marinetti's exuberant vision into an edible meal was a challenge, said Giorgio Locatelli, the Michelin-starred London chef called in to oversee the dinner. Real-life Futurist banquets held in the 1930s were raucous affairs in which food was often secondary to sensation.

"We did a lot of reading, and it seemed like one guy would cook a meal for six or seven people, and 200 people would turn up," Locatelli said. "So there was no food at all — just people drinking and then beating each other up at the end."

Marinetti's cookbook includes descriptions of various dishes, as well as descriptions of meals appropriate to various occasions. For lovers, Marinetti suggested a cocktail called War-in-Bed, "composed of pineapple juice, egg, cocoa, caviar, almond paste, a pinch of red pepper, a pinch of nutmeg and a whole clove, all liquidized in Strega liqueur."

Soldiers about to go into battle should eat "raw meat torn by trumpet blasts." The recipe begins: "Cut a perfect cube of beef. Pass an electric current through it, then marinate it for 24 hours in a mixture of rum, cognac and white vermouth."

In adapting Marinetti's freewheeling ideas for the table, British Library organizers were forced to strike a balance between the avant-garde and the edible.

Curator Stephen Bury said he regretted the absence of chicken with ball bearings. "But we thought, 'Oh God, the liability if someone choked.'"

Entering the dining room, guests passed a "carne plastica," or meat sculpture — a towering pyramid made from 36 chickens, assorted guinea fowl, chunks of lamb, beef and sausage, topped with a honey-glazed tumulus of minced beef.

Courses were served by waiters in striped flannel pajamas. Salmon with Mars sauce turned out to be an inoffensive piece of fish with a sauce of anchovies, capers and pesto, and was dismissed as "boring" by one diner. Almost everyone agreed the Elasticake was delicious.

Other elements were more unsettling. After the appetizer, diners were ushered away from the table by a man with a megaphone and herded downstairs to chew on rice balls while listening to Futurist tracts read out in Italian and English.

Futurism and other avant-garde movements like surrealism and Dadaism have had a well-documented impact in the arts, visible in everything from the paintings of Salvador Dali to the free-associating slapstick of the Marx Brothers.

Futurism's influence on the way we eat today is less obvious. But traces of it can be seen in nouvelle cuisine, with its focus on tiny portions and artistic arrangements.

Marinetti's declaration that scientific principles should be used in the Futurist kitchen is reflected in the "molecular gastronomy" practiced by acclaimed chefs like Britain's Heston Blumenthal and Spain's Ferran Adria.

And his anti-pasta stance finds an echo in today's low-carb diets.

"A lot of the things these people talked about, like the tactile sensation of the food, are things that chefs today talk about," said Locatelli.

"And it's true that Italians tend to overdo it a little on the pasta. I agree with that. So the idea of a varied diet was very forward-thinking at the time."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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