The Danish thinker and writer Tor Nørretranders has played an instrumental role in MAD’s development over the past four years. Today, in the first installment of our new series From The Vault, we’d like to share his three talks from the symposium. All of the presentations explore similar themes and build on the argument that gaining knowledge and exploring the edible world will lead to a more delicious future. 

Last summer, Nørretranders titled his presentation “Who’s Got the Guts?” with the goal of pushing the chefs and food service professionals in the audience to break away from habits and strive to discover the products and flavors we haven’t yet made staples of our pantry, even though they may have been readily available to our ancestors. 

He began his argument by asking everyone in the audience to tickle themselves. The result was boring. But then, he asked everyone to tickle the person next to them. For a good minute, the room erupted in a cacophony of shrieks, laughter, and applause. This was Nørretranders’ way of introducing attendees to the idea of the reward prediction error, which, explained in simple terms, suggests that if people get what they expect, it doesn’t make for a huge degree of enjoyment; predictability diminishes pleasure.

"Certainty equals no joy," said Nørretranders, "but if you get more than what you expect or are completely surprised, that changes dramatically." He likened it to the warm shower so many of us in the western world take in the morning. For those who can take it for granted, it’s not a particularly extraordinary experience. But imagine what it would feel like for someone in a part of the planet without access to water. 

How does this all apply to cooking and eating? Nørretranders believes that modern industrial agriculture has created a monotony where palates, stomachs, and minds aren’t challenged or tickled. Nørretranders explained that with more than a billion foreign organisms in our stomachs (and, as professor Heribert Watzke noted during the same weekend, a ton of space), there is an enormous potential for tickling. “If you keep eating the same McDonald’s hamburger,” Nørretranders said, “you will experience dullness.” 

Nørretranders showed the above graphic and explained further:

Our civilization is all about control and predictability. We have streets paved and organized in a way where we can expect that we can walk and drive on them [comfortably]. The trains need to run on time. We take away problems that annoy us, which is great, because we are getting rid of things that annoy us. Yet it doesn’t make us happy, because we get used to it. The irony is that we are working to create a world that is pleasing to us, yet it gets to the point where it stops being joyful.

In his two previous MAD talks, Nørretranders developed the arguments that brought him to urge chefs to tickle their guests and seek out the new at MAD3. As the first speaker to appear at MAD1 in 2011, he noted that modern agriculture has done away with diversity and made it difficult for wild foods to thrive. “We have gone from being wild to being tame,” he said. “Monocultures have made it so that 60% of the calories we consume come from just four crops: rice, wheat, corn, and potatoes.” (The seed activist Vandana Shiva explored this subject in depth during her MAD3 talk, which you can view here.)

The fact brings Nørretranders to make the rather bold claim that most of gastronomy is about taking the poor and the dull and trying to make something interesting with it. “It’s a sad waste of cleverness,” he says. By emphasizing annuals — “pessimistic crops” — Nørretranders believes we have raped the soil and missed out on what nature could give us all, especially those who prepare food for a living.

He says that we “need another approach to nature, to the wild. We have to remember that the word ‘wild’ stems from the word ‘will.’” As opposed to tame, which means we control it all. The wild is what wants to be there on its own, the things that are there without human projects.” He suggested that we might take some inspiration from the hunter-gatherer, who had access to a diversity of ingredients.

At MAD2, he synthesized these ideas and proposed a way of working towards that goal. And it doesn’t mean rejecting modern society and living in seclusion in the middle of the woods. 

For Nørretranders, it requires a clever sense of daring — training, skills, care, and knowledge. First, though, “we have to trust the world and our senses,” he said. “Because the world is edible.”