3 wicked bits about gastronomy


The following are three striking morsels of information related to food:

  1. Cooking made science possible
  2. Cookbooks are the result of people not knowing how to cook at all
  3. There is an American “wartime cookbook”.

1. Empirical knowledge about production, preparation, consumption of food apparently made the rise and growth of science possible. This was suggested in Poulain’s work (Jean-Pierre Poulain, Alimentazione, cultura e società, il Mulino, 2008, trad. Aldo Pasquali, p. 88; he quotes this idea from someone else).

Let’s try to untangle this suggestion. It would seem logical that careful observation of what is edible, how it grows, when it is mature, how it behaves when cooked, etc. can become the basis of what we call now scientific thinking. But it would also suggest that the type of science gleaned from the observation then is specific to that observation and therefore localized, based on climatic conditions, ethnic considerations, religious parameters, social norms, and other limits. But science as we know it is free from these restrictions, so the question is not how science was borne out of food preparation but when, and why did science free itself from all the impositions (natural and cultural), or did it? Furthermore, is the connection between food preparation and scientific thinking still possible? Is food observation to gather new empirical knowledge still possible? In other words,  what scientific knowledge can grow from the observation of food served in fast-food joints, latest food craze and, beyond that,  offered by the corner market or local supermarket? The answer is clear: none. Could this explain in part the modern culinary crisis?


2. Another of Poulain’s citations from different sources indicates that cookbooks as we know them were a really needed commodity since people did not know how to prepare foods at all. This idea seems reasonable once we are put in the position to remember “How did my (grand)mother cook this?” and concluding that since she did not measure, and we don’t recall her procedures, we really don’t know and therefore bit of culinary pearl is lost. But cookbooks assume literacy, willingness to learn, time to read and experiment, as well as access to all the ingredients and tools mentioned. He mechanization and technologization of everything is upon us, so it is great that cookbooks specify grams now and not pinches of this and that.


3. Cookbooks ad hoc abound: from rice cookery to vegan cooking to the Longevity cookbook and more; all you need to do is to identify the purpose and you will find someone has written a cookbook for that. But a wartime cookbook? It is perhaps too easily understood that during wartime, you eat what you lay your hands on (if you are a soldier, you even eat grass and tree bark, even though you know there is no nutrition there, as my grandfather did in the First World War during the winter-time front close to Palmanova). However, MFK Fisher’s 1942 book How to Cook a Wolf (revised in 1951, The World Publishing Company: Cleveland and New York) takes the perspective of an individual food provider during the shortages in the US brought on by the Second World War.  She was all too aware of the fact that her ideas might quickly become “quaint” (her word), and susceptible to double ridicule (her assessment). It is instructive to note that shortages made her think outside of the box and that some of her suggestions would be welcome even in the XXI century. Her matter-of-fact, sometimes amusing, other times scathing, criticism of conventional thinking exemplifies an attitude that is lost in the present whirlpool of politically-correct thinking. What were her complaints? What does she find wrong in the realm of cooking? It would be too long to enumerate all of the grievances, but let’s look at two: (1) “One of the most obvious fallacies is that of what we should eat.” And (2) “One of the stupidest things in an earnest but stupid school of culinary thought is that each of the three daily meals should be <balanced>”. Her descriptions and suggestions to counter these fallacies and stupidities form the heart of the book, and as such, offer much more than some “wartime” recipes.

In conclusion, the wickedness of these three morsels lies in the possibility of letting us into realms never thought of before and in dire need of explanation since they may yet prove their usefulness.


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