Vicarious of Dishes: Teaching the Question of the Recipe

One peach.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A single peach. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

Teaching food history via historical recipes initially flummoxed me. Of course I understood some of the cultural-historical lessons they can help us learn: the ways in which historical actors, at a particular point in time, communicated instructions for the preparation of dishes; the units of measurement those actors used; the degree to which a recipe’s author presumes the reader’s knowledge of basic techniques; whether a specific ingredient, such as cardamom, was judged to be readily available or rare; information about which social classes ate which foods. These are all valuable, and perhaps sufficient for teaching a certain kind of food history and for satisfying the specific kind of factual curiosity that often brings students into food history classes. I was nevertheless flummoxed because I still did not understand what a recipe is, and because I suspected that there were very basic – if theoretical – questions about food practice that historical recipes could open up if properly introduced to students. I wanted to find ways of encouraging my students to ask those questions rather than remaining satisfied with the sets of facts that recipes can divulge: moreover, I wanted my students to do more than merely move between two affective responses that I think historical recipes can produce in us: “relating” to the cooks and eaters of the past, and being “estranged” from them because of the alien-ness of their foodways. Perhaps most importantly, I wanted my students to escape the gravity-well of the concept of the “authentic” recipe.

In a recent essay, philosopher Andrea Borghini asks what recipes are, and ultimately argues that we take what he calls a “constructivist” view of the recipe, in which what counts as a recipe is not absolute – for it is very difficult to determine the original or final version of a given recipe – but, rather, performative: we agree with the chef that this should be called a dumpling, but not that, or we do not agree. In other words recipes are the products of a set of social conventions, often the result of myriad past chains of agreement or disagreement about how we do things in the kitchen. Very helpfully, Borghini points out that recipes only seem to have an independent existence, in the form of their textual transmission in cookbooks or on the Internet. In fact they do not exist independently, but are “vicarious of dishes,” where dishes are, simply put, food that has somehow been prepared in a fashion that we might consider worthy of a recipe. Borghini’s essay furthermore proposes a recursive relationship between cooking and recipes: recipes enable us to cook in many cases, but cooking is also (potentially) the process of producing recipes by means of producing dishes.

Obviously what counts as a “dish” is its own question, and one can approach it philosophically, or cultural-historically, or anthropologically, or by all three paths at once – indeed, these kinds of food history questions produce interdisciplinarity like stonefruit produces a dusty white bloom. Reading Borghini, I realized that I had thought similarly when I sat down to develop a question I now ask food history students: what makes a dish “worthy” of a recipe? What is the minimum set of operations we must perform upon a set of ingredients before we produce a dish worthy of (or, that necessitates) a recipe? This exercise was, admittedly, born out of my irritation with one item on the menu at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, namely that the restaurant sometimes offers, when it is seasonally appropriate, to serve us a peach for dessert, usually from Frog Hollow Farms, to which I responded to anyone who would put up with me, “I don’t want to pay $12 (or whatever it was) for Alice Waters’ minions to serve me a f$ck^ng peach.” My grumpiness proved productive, in that it led me to wonder about the ways in which a particular culture thinks about the complexity of dishes, and the level of complexity at which a recipe becomes welcome; in a different vein, I thought about this while perusing some of the Ottolenghi cookbooks, which are beautiful objects and now about as ubiquitous as the Silver Palette cookbooks used to be in the ‘90s. However, Ottolenghi recipes reflect a cuisine that is less technique-oriented than some; said recipes are more like instructions about which ingredients to seek out in (often) “ethnic” supermarkets and then how to assemble them together. In contrast, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking deals in an entirely different level of culinary education. I am not proposing a hierarchy of good and bad cookbooks here, in which the criterion for quality is technical difficulty (i.e., classic French sauces; mille-feuille pastry dough); I am simply pointing out that what counts as a recipe, in each case, is different. I developed my “what is a recipe” question, which I sometimes use with my students, in order to direct them to the juncture of philosophy and cultural history where – at least for me – recipes become interesting.

Andrea Borghini, “What is a Recipe?” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 2015.

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft lives in Oakland, and currently works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he writes about laboratory-grown meat and the futures of food. A native of Cambridge, Massachusetts, he studied at Swarthmore College and did his graduate work in European intellectual history at Berkeley. In addition to his scholarly work, he regularly writes on contemporary food culture. His book Thinking in Public: Strauss, Levinas, Arendt will be out from Penn in January 2016. He is @benwurgaft on Twitter.

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