Like any other piece of literature, a recipe is an act of translation. As literature takes the complexity of the human experience and translates it into a coherent set of signs and symbols, recipes take nature’s diversity and translate it, through language, into a recognizable semiotics. Yet in this translation process information is lost and changed. Just as literature is prone to omit minorities (and focus on the straight, white and male), recipes are liable to problematic limitations through their in- and exclusions.
Take the humble carrot. There are two main classifications for carrots: eastern and western. Under the western branch, there are four subdivisions: Chantenay, Danvers, Imperator, and Nantes. Some estimates put the total number of individual carrot varietals in the hundreds. Soil type influences carrots’ flavor, with peat soil creating the most sweetness, while sandy soil results in more perfectly formed roots. An incredible diversity of colors, shapes, flavors, and applications flow from this one vegetable.
And yet: how many recipes acknowledge this diversity? In culinary school one of the first formulas shared was the classical mirepoix: two parts onion, one part celery and one part carrot. But which carrots? And for that matter, which onions, and which celery? Behind each of these words, incredible diversities of beautiful, unique, delicious things are hidden. How often does one find a recipe calling for Deep Purple Hybrids, Imperator 58s, Lunar Whites, Parisian Heirlooms, or Purple Dragons? There is only one default carrot, and it is obfuscating a world of diversity.
Exclusion has consequences. Just as traditional western literature is prone to shortcomings in representation, recipes are complicit in creating a world where nature is similarly monolithic, containing only a fraction of its constituent complexity. It then becomes much more difficult for nature to be made visible in its fullness.
In the late 20th century, French feminists argued persuasively for the creative, generative power of language. Hélѐne Cixous (1976) claimed that masculine language being the norm made the feminine other. More recently, Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars, especially Annemarie Mol (1999) and Bruno Latour (2013), have argued for epistemology’s role in shaping ontology; that what we know, how we know, and the ways we go about knowing, all have consequences for emergent conceptions of our realities (very much in the plural). Following Cixous, a literature that falls short in representation creates a world in which diversity is othered – exorcised, even – in favor of monoculture.
It’s a thorny problem. Recipe authors know they need to prescribe ingredients that cooks can reliably find. And yet, a recipe calling for a one-pound bag of carrots is working with a completely different set of assumptions about the world than a recipe that calls for sixteen early-season Thumbelinas. Moreover, each generates a very different sort of world. In the former, there’s only one thing that goes by the name carrot, and it’s the same every time. In the latter, there are myriad things known as carrot, and what they are, what they taste like, and how they cook, varies depending on time of year and provenance. There is an ontological politics at play that, carried out over the entire corpus of recipes and cookbooks, creates a world in which nature’s diversity ceases to exist. As Donna Haraway (2016) teaches, stories make worlds and worlds make stories.
Of course, in a world where access to any fruit or vegetable, before even considering which type, is not only fraught but oftentimes impossible, it’s clear that the work of equity is pressing. Still, the relationship between humans and nature is in dangerous need of reconciliation, for the betterment of all. Part of this work must be a critical evaluation of what we understand nature to be, and how we arrive at that understanding. A more inclusive recipe literature would help better understand the nature in which we are but one small part.
Cixous, Hélѐne. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs 1, 4 (1976): 875–93.
Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2016.
Latour, Bruno. An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013.
Mol, Annemarie. “Ontological politics. A word and some questions.” The Sociological Review. 47, 1 (1999): 74-89.