Interview by Jess Clark
As we mentioned at the beginning of 2019, there are a number of exciting new developments happening here at the Recipes Project, including the arrival of three new co-editors. Today I have the pleasure of introducing one of them: Josh Schlachet! Josh is a historian of early modern and modern Japan who focuses on food cultures, nourishment, and global food studies. I recently had the opportunity to ask Josh about his research interests in recipes. Without further ado, please welcome our new co-editor, in his own words.
Welcome to your new role as co-editor of the Recipes Project, Josh! What interests you most about recipes?
What I find most fascinating about recipes is the multitude of ways that people think up to get from a heap of stuff to a finished product. Even when they set out to make the exact same thing, no two recipes ever imagine quite the same method for getting there. My grandmother’s “secret” matzo ball recipe (the beans now very much spilled) calls for seltzer instead of water, we believed to add some fluff to the rock-hard alternative. And she always added shredded chicken to her soup, though the purists would insist that broth alone would have been enough. Recipes allow a sort of freedom in what we might expect to be a strict formula, a chance for authors and makers to craft new styles of doing old things and a flexibility to interpret among those who follow them. It is these endless permutations that grant us the choice of which to follow, or the creative opportunity to deviate, hybridize, combine. A recipe, despite its self-apparent certainty, is always one of many.
We know that you work on food and nourishment in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Japan. How do recipes feature in your research?
As someone who writes about food and nourishment in Japan, recipes are all over my research, though not in the ways you might expect. One surprising thing that jumps off the pages of culinary manuals from Japan’s Edo period (1600-1868) is just how little their authors seemed to care about the details of how food was prepared—and possibly even less about how the completed dish was meant to look and taste. Or we could say that the expectation of esoteric knowledge ran so deep that they left such trivial particulars unsaid. Like Escoffier’s elegantly sparse directions in his tree of sauces (for sauce champignons: make a demi-glace, add mushrooms) you were supposed to already know what to do. Yet the documents I work with constantly reveal their formulas for how to assemble a dietary philosophy, as well as how to live by it once crafted. These, too, are recipes in a sense. They walked audiences step-by-step through how to think about their own consumption, and the finished product was meant to be their bodies, not their meals.
As a researcher or educator, what’s been your favorite recipe to use and why?
My favorite collection of recipes to work and teach with, though I certainly wouldn’t want to eat the results myself, appears in An Outline on Famine Relief, a text from the early nineteenth century that sought to alleviate the conditions of mass starvation plaguing Japan at the time. In their defiant ingenuity in the face of misery, these recipes show us the strength of the human will to survive. They instructed readers on how to prepare and combine “ingredients” from the scum that seeped off the bottom of rice-washing water to starch pounded from wild roots, pulped tree bark, beeswax, and whatever other half-edibles famine victims could find. Recipes like these could be useful as philanthropic tools, too, helping to create a sense of urgency and prompting those with enough to come to the aid of those in dire need. They also demonstrate just how adaptable a recipe can be, how formats built for delicacies in times of plenty could transform to fit moments of desperate lack.
We’re excited about new developments here at the Recipes Project. What kinds of posts are you hoping to commission for the RP?
I’m excited too! One of my goals for the Recipes Project is to expand our global scope, especially in the areas of East Asia that I focus on in my own work. To that end, I hope to commission posts for the RP that put recipes in cross-cultural perspective and build out from our strengths in the European and American contexts. I also hope to test out some new framings for how we conceive of the already expansive category of recipes. I’d like to organize a series of posts on industrial development recipes in the modernizing world, from concrete manufacturing to chemical flavor enhancers. I’m also interested in a series that explores luxury and lack, including the kinds of recipes for the impoverished I mentioned above. It’s a genuine pleasure to join the RP team, and I look forward to many recipes to come!