Monday, November 28, 2005

The Utilitarian Cookbook

At Right Reason, Chris Tollefsen asserts that all good cooks are conservative. Now, I'm no expert on cooking, or on the strange casserole of hardened traditionalism, religious dogma, and leftover prejudice that seems to constitute philosophical conservatism. But it seems to me (and he might agree) that Millian "experiments in cooking" are essential to the improvement of the art. Any who disagree are welcome to sample Dennis Clark's champagne vinegar and chili oil mayonnaise -- a substance so delicious that I originally refused to consider it mayonnaise. Dennis then explained to me that mayonnaise is not defined by its immediately sensible properties, but by its hidden essence as an emulsion. But I'll put aside questions of artificial kind semantics for another day.

Should I someday learn to cook very well (or marry a far better cook than myself), perhaps I'll play some role in the writing of a utilitarian cookbook. Think of all the desiderata that utilitarians use to evaluate a meal -- yumminess, appearance, fun-ness to eat, health, price, ease of preparation, ease of acquiring ingredients, and kindness to animals. The cookbook would contain recipes that maximized utility, keeping all these features in mind.

I should say here that the core of Tollefsen's claim about conservatism in cooking does not seem wrong to me. That cooks defer in some degree to tradition and authority seems plausible. But this is something that culinary utilitarians can easily swallow. Nobody argues that the art of navigation is not founded on astronomy, because sailors cannot wait to calculate the Nautical Almanack.1 And none should argue that the art of cooking is not founded on utility, just because cooks use recipes that have proven themselves over time.

[Update]: Having just bought my first carton of soy milk, let me say that it's wonderful as an oatmeal solvent.


Anonymous said...

I consider myself a pretty good cook, but I'm a sorta vague sentimentalist, not a utilitarian (I hear Hume was also a good cook, so perhaps sentimentalists are the best cooks). The utilitarian cookbook sounds good, though.

Utilitarians should make good cooks, because they take physical, carnal pleasure seriously. Also, note that Utilitarianism is something of a philosophical descendent of Epicureanism (Epicureanism is egoistic hedonism, Utilitarianism is universal hedonism), which is synonymous with good cooking. I can imagine a Kantian cookbook, which would probably be healthy (fulfilling imperfect duties to oneself and all that) but tasteless (why make it taste good? There's nothing morally worthwhile about pleasure, you degenerate!).

Most conservatives are neither utilitarians, Epicureans, or Kantians, but rather divine command theorists with regard to morality. Making good food is a waste of time -- thyme? -- when you should be preparing for heaven. Neither taste nor healthiness are particularly relevant. I can't remember who, but I remember some saint from the middle ages who carried ashes with him and sprinkled them in any food he was going to eat to make SURE that it didn't taste good.

Since Epicureanism has largely died out, in theory, I would expect Objectivists and other egoists to make the best cooks. After all, they have all of the regard for the finer things in life that utilitarians do, but without any of the moral restrictions on matters like economizing on shared resources, treating animals well, economizing on one's own consumption so that more is available to help others, etc. However, Objectivists aren't very good cooks, apparently.

Tollefsen's assertion is puzzling, because I thought that conservatives prided themselves on their bad cooking. Isn't part of the generic smear against liberals something along the lines of "fine wine-drankin', cheese-eatin', surrenderin', elitists," and part of the conservative self-image drinking Budweiser with bibs and ribs? Conservatives can't be both the anti-culinary finery party AND the good cooking party! Come on! I suspect that George Bush, being a wealthy, well-bred man, has better taste in food than he lets on, but he would never admit to, say, disliking Philly cheesesteaks or freedom fries or whatever. His dad couldn't admit to liking broccolli. (I suspect that Clinton's taste for junk, on the other hand, was pretty authentic)

Anonymous said...

The problem with a utilitarian cookbook is that a utility maximizing recipe for you might not be a utility maximizing recipe for me. For instance, if I am time rich and cash poor, there is no more utilitarian treat than bread, as flour is so cheap but homemade bread so indescribably tasty. However, a time poor cash rich individual would find all the kneading, rising, shaping and baking poor investment indeed.

Also, there is the little matter of meat. Whether the utility generated from eating tasty animals makes up for the disutility of animal suffering is a very personal matter. For me personally, I try to eat ethically raised when I can. But you have a different conception of what is acceptable. Other utilitarians might reject that animal suffering have much utilitarian value at all, etc. etc.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and Julian,
Don't dismiss ribs. They can be some of the finest eating when cooked to perfection. My favorite place for ribs is the Three Pigs and a Lady restaurant in Galax, VA., doused in mountain barbeque sauce. Heaven.

Anonymous said...

My apologies, battlepanda. It wasn't my intention to smear ribs. My main point is that if Tollefsen wants to claim good cooking to be the exclusive province of conservatism, he hasn't been paying much to the rugged, hypermasculinist mythology that conservatives in Washington and various state capitals have created around themselves: contemptuous of the arts, scorning material comfort and indulgence, narrowly conformist with regard to aesthetic tastes and preferences.

I'm not saying that conservatives have bad taste because they enjoy ribs. I'm just saying that the idea of a tough, male conservative with Philistine tastes, who sneers at liberals with their fine food and drink, is deeply rooted in conservative mythology. This doesn't disprove Tollefsen's point, but his assertions of conservative superiority in the kitchen would be a lot more plausible if he at least addressed it.

Anonymous said...

Ah! I found the name of the saint who mixed ashes into his food to make it taste bad! It was Saint Francis! Funny, because I'm reading Eco's Name of the Rose right now, which is all about Franciscans, or something.

Dennis said...

First, as far as deference to tradition and authority go, one can certainly say that science is as conservative as cooking in the ways proposed by Tollefsen -- in order to get good at it to a modern standard, you have to learn in ways that don't consist of doing all the experiments yourself. Axiomatizing, Tollefsen appears to have a description of conservatism that applies to any discipline (a) whose outcomes must be measured by at least some objective standard and (b) whose practice cannot be easily developed by a single individual. (a) implies a need to learn technique, and (b) tells you that you must learn it by deferring to authority. This cuts out practically everything as "conservative in a general sense," so the argument seems moot.

In fact, I wonder if cooking doesn't look a lot like science would if there were a large market for a particularly well-executed Foucault's Pendulum and other classic experiments as well as sexy new stuff, but I digress...

Second, in terms of cooking in particular, recent years have seen much received wisdom and purported "fact" utterly debunked. This includes tidbits ranging from "searing seals in the juices" to "mushrooms will get waterlogged if you wash them." So this authority at least isn't all it's cracked up to be. (See Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking for the definitive work in this area)

Third, may I offer you some Ferran Adria? Currently supposed the best cook in the world, spawned a million followers, famous for making amazing food that bears no resemblence to any food anybody has ever made before, much?

Dave Thomer said...

Anyone watched Good Eats on the Food Network? Alton Brown is what I'd consider to be a pragmatist cook - because I'm a pragmatist and I like him, so of course I want to appropriate him. But Brown's cooking is based on science and experimentation - understanding the principles like the emulsion in your mayonnaise, and figuring out how to use them in new ways. He ties cooking into other disciplines like history and chemistry, and he questions popular beliefs about cooking to see if they actually work. I have learned recipes from other cookbooks. But Brown, the Joy of Cooking, and the folks at Cook's Illustrated (who have a similar experimental approach and generate some great equipment ratings) have taught me how to cook.

Battlepanda said...

Are you kidding? Alton? Pragmatic?

I love him dearly, but what he is is an obsessive-compulsive food nerd who is crazed about technique and hygene.

I consider Rachel Ray a much more practical cook, when it comes to food network personalities.

Dave Thomer said...


Yeah, I'm serious. For starters, I do think a lot of Alton's techniques are relatively on the simple side. I used his pancake mix to make a quick brunch Thanksgiving morning for my in-laws. They were all "Oh, no, don't make a fuss, we'll just go around the corner to Dunkin' Donuts and get bagels." I had the pancakes done before they got back.

Granted, the rib recipe's another story.

But when I say pragmatic, I don't mean practical. I mean "like the pragmatist philosophers, especially John Dewey." Their idea was that we figured out the world by investigating it, and that the right ideas to have were the ones that helped us navigate the world. So when Alton uses a probe thermometer to know when meat is done instead of guessing, that's pragmatic. When Alton conducts experiments to debunk food myths like "searing seals in juices," that's pragmatic.

He also has a very Deweyan idea of education - that the way to learn about chemistry and history and biology and all of this is to tie into an actual activity that people perform in their everyday lives. I've actually shown an episode of Good Eats to my classes to illustrate Dewey's idea of education.

Cathie said...

As cooking is an art, and art is for liberals (can this be argued against?), I'd say that the best cooks are liberals. The reason it is a secret is they just appreciate the art of it too much to crave glory.

I, liberal, make the best burgers on the planet, and yes, great burgers are truly an art. ;)


Anonymous said...

Conservatives descend philosophically less from Bentham than from Burke, Locke, Hume, and Mill. Supplying the greatest good for the greatest number assumes you have a government ready and willing to do that, whereas conservatives would prefer that everyone pursue happiness as free, independent individuals.

Artists tend to be liberals these days because they think the government should pay for paintings and sculpture that they can't sell in the marketplace. No more Medicis; the big spenders are in government.

It's a big mistake to confuse Epicureans with hedonists. That's like confusing gourmets with gourmands.

As for utilitarianism guiding cooking, it's true that the best cooks make the most out of whatever ingredients they have at their disposal, and that they find a balance between extremes of sweetness and sourness, and spiciness and blandness.

Wherever there are communists, there is a shortage of everything to cook with. That shows you where socialism takes you, liberals.

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