On Sprezzatura and Chupa Chups
09 Dec, 2011 - Daniel Nayeri
This article was first published in December 2008.
So the story goes that when Enric Bernat, Spaniard and former employee of an apple jam factory, piped himself down on a barstool in Barcelona, it was the artist Salvador Dali who was sitting next to him. And it was also 1969.
This was eleven years after Bernat parted ways with the fruit preservation and canning business. His investors simply hadn’t entrepreneurial horizons as wide as Bernat’s, and refused to see the opportunities that lay in lollipops. In the meantime, Bernat ventured on his own, and became rather successful, with a product named Chupa Chups.
The rest of the anecdote about Bernat and Dali goes . . . Bernat asked the famous surrealist artist to design the logo for his number-one product, and Dali reached over, grabbed a cocktail napkin, and scrawled a cartoon flower on it. Then he handed it to Bernat. That was it: Chupa Chups as we know them.
Sure, I find this story colloquially winsome, but mostly I find it irritating. It’s the same cultural thing we do, reveling in discoveries (and sometimes great art) made by lazy accident, unwitting luck, or drunken boobery. Penicillin was discovered by neglecting a ham sandwich. Tea was struck upon when a dry leaf drifted into the Chinese emperor’s cup of hot water. At cocktail parties I never go to, but imagine, you can proffer these factoids and wonder at the concept of genius. Not excellence of craft, but something you kinda shamble into.
Also, I really hate it when two random dudes in a bar, friendly acquaintances, each happen to be on their way to fame and fortune in their respective fields. That wasn’t the case here, but it really bugs me, like I should be hamming it up with every jerk in every dive bar instead of working.
How seriously can we take the idea that Dali doodled the design for Chupa Chups? Also, can we agree the logo for the lollipop is as compositionally profound as Campbell’s Soup, or Coca-Cola? If so, then basically the question is: are we being stupid? Okay, maybe that’s always the question in a “take care of yourself, and each other,” sort of way. But more specifically, the question is whether we should celebrate art as effortless bungling.
In the song, “Remember the Name,” by Fort Minor (a rap anthem recorded, it seems, for the express purpose of making me want to join the UFC), this idea is almost perfectly illustrated. The entire song is about how hard these guys work, the driving chorus goes, “This is ten percent luck, twenty percent skill / Fifteen percent concentrated power of will / Five percent pleasure, fifty percent pain.” If we’re going to go the way of Russian Structuralism and map out the methods of creative output, I’d say this is pretty spot on. You got a dash of inspiration, some technical or educational foundation, and mostly, you got a lot of hard work.
The rest of the song paints the members of Fort Minor as blue-collar types. They don’t care about a “name in lights” or hype, they just want to be heard. And they know they have to work for it. In fact, one of them, “writes every note and he writes every line.” A practice uncommon for songwriters, it seems.
But later, near the end of the song, maybe in the service of a lazy rhyme, they say, “And those motherf**kers he runs with, those kids that he signed / Ridiculous, without even tryin’.”
What the? How does that work? Suddenly, the contradiction is played out on a conscious level. The artists want to be street, and grit, or whatever. Nobody gave them any handouts. But, it would be gauche to be seen trying. So, at end, you’ve got fifty percent pain, and one hundred percent God-given awesome.
This, of course, is also stupid.
What has always drawn me to Baldassare Castiglione’s concept of sprezzatura (The Book of the Courtier, 1528) is the idea that to be the man or woman of spontaneous skill, you must work your ass off behind the scenes. Castiglione describes the ideal man in one passage, saying at first he refuses to play an instrument for a crowd, citing his lack of skill and practice. But upon insistence, the courtier relents. And we know that secretly, the dude’s been practicing for years. So when he takes up the instrument, he proceeds to rock everyone’s face off. Now, that is motherf**king gangtsa. Word to the Duke of Urbino.
Sprezzatura, as a concept, is impossible to translate fully. It is bravura, a swagger you can back up, a cool beyond cool. It’s the years of laboring on card tricks or juggling, so that you get thirty seconds, somewhere in the undisclosed future in some bar with some stunning person, where you actually pull off the sleight of hand, or the turn of phrase, or just plain catch the tipping glass. It’s charm.
It’s also what every pastry chef is going for. As Enric Bernat will tell you, the process of making a Chupa Chup is so complex and requires such machine-like dexterity, that it’s frankly better to let machines handle it. The product, however, is a simple lollipop. Charm on a stick.
Ferran Adria, the father of molecular gastronomy, has a type of lollipop in his repertoire that is paper-thin, quarter-size, and made of flash-frozen yogurt, a process you need a laboratory to replicate. You would have to mortgage your house to afford the equipment necessary, then mortgage it again to get the education. But once Adria’s done all the work, he brings it out to a table. Guests might make overtures of gratitude, but like any good chef, he will say, “it’s nothing, it’s nothing.” Hours of painstaking work have gone into this moment, when they put the lollipops on their tongues, and they instantaneously melt into a shot of flavor. Imagine right now, the sour creamy flavor of Greek yogurt, mixed with a sweet and tart infusion of raspberry coulis. Now imagine it soaking into your tongue without your feeling the texture of any of these ingredients. It is an experience like cold dew. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a magic act.
I suppose that’s why I’m irritated by the anecdote of Dali scribbling a flower. I have to believe that he had spent the previous thirteen hours drawing the same doodle over and over again, until he was certain his off-the-cuff squiggle would be worthy of design legend. Precise imprecision. The constant practice of a rapper in his basement is what makes his free styling great. The half-dozen hours toward mise en place is what allows the chef to present a spontaneous collision of perfectly paired flavors and forms. Otherwise, it’s lucky you didn’t get food poisoning.
And Adria, he’s going to go home and soak his joints in Bengay. But for now, it is all-important to the presentation that he smile knowingly at your surprise. “It’s nothing,” he’ll say again. But trust me, it’s everything.