“Recombinant food”

Reading REAMDE by Neal Stephenson, I ran across this notion of “recombinant food” (pp. 219-220):

Having now lived for a few decades in parts of the United States and Canada where cooking was treated quite seriously, and having actually employed professional chefs, he was fascinated by the midwestern/middle American phenomenon of recombinant cuisine. Rice Krispie Treats being a prototypical example in that they were made by repurposing other foods that had already been prepared (to wit, breakfast cereal and marshmallows). And of course any recipe that called for a can of cream of mushroom soup fell into the same category. The unifying principle behind all recombinant cuisine seemed to be indifference, if not outright hostility, to the use of anything that a coastal foodie would define as an ingredient.
The recombinant food thing was a declaration of mental bankruptcy in the complexity of modern material culture.

Why do I blog this? Food made with already processed elements is something I already noticed recently, not just in the US but also in Europe. Last examples that come to mind have been encountered in France: tiramisu or speculoos ice-cream, desserts made of and banana mixed together, snickers-based recipes.

(Picture by the divine dish)

Even though I’m not much of a food expert, I find this intriguing as a way to show how material culture (yes I include food as part of material culture) is in a constant process of hybridization and recombination. It’s particularly interesting that Stephenson use this term coming from chemistry and genetics as it reveals the underlying principles: some basic components (units in Ian Bogost’s perspective on #ooo or “cultural waves” in Basile Zimmermann’s parlance) can be combined… to create something potentially new and original. Which is of course tight to the notion of creolization I already mentioned here.

This kind of phenomenon is spot on what I’m interested in lately as the process that led to this sort of type of food is the key to understand potential futures. I’m currently working on this for an upcoming talk at the Hirshhorn Museum in June.


The terms ‘Creole’ and ‘creolization’ are used in many different contexts and generally in an inconsistent way. It is instructive to start with the origins of the root word. It was probably derived from the Latin creara (‘created originally’)… The French transformed the word to ‘créole’… ‘Creole’ referred to something or someone that had foreign (normally metropolitan) origins and that had now become somewhat localised… To be a Creole is no longer a mimetic, derivative stance. Rather it describes a position interposed between two or more cultures, selectively appropriating some elements, rejecting others, and creating new possibilities that transgress and supersede parent cultures, which themselves are increasingly recognised as fluid.

— Robin Cohen, Creolization and Cultural Globalization: The Soft Sounds of Fugitive Power, Globalizations Vol. 4 (2) 2007

Why do I blog this? Some people wonder about the fact that we live in a perpetual present without the jetpacks, moonbases and virtual realities we were promised. This was actually the topic of the Lift 09 conference I co-organized. I’m more and more interested to uncover the the “alternative futures” to this, places where créolisation will play an important role. This is a new pet project for 2012 and I will file all the weak signals I collect about this under the category “creolization”.