Textual food criticism

306564541_5249a67f89There was time when each kitchen had the same, single authoritative cook book, placed in its center on a little lectern and consulted with respect. Or, alternatively, some people owned the handwritten recipes coming from their grandmothers, copied word by word with care, kept in a wooden box and transmitted faithfully to the next generation. The cookbook publishing business was dull and predictable and maybe it wasn’t really a business.

Time came, though, when food multiculturalism became mainstream. It wasn’t weird anymore to cook a Moroccan dish if your family was not of Moroccan ancestry. In the process, recipes were adapted to local tastes and herb availability. And cookbooks proliferated, based on a specific region, ingredient, style, or food genre. Suddenly, their authors were not anonymous scribes anymore and became famous. Grandmother’s recipes were not considered the tested wisdom of generations; now they are being questioned and altered. So, if you are thinking about making some carbonara, you can do a brief web search and an avalanche of carbonara recipes is upon you. There is  an overabundance of recipes, however, but not the security whether they are the real thing from a certified culinary tradition or a fake imitation. And then do you think cookbook authors invent dishes ab novo? They “borrow” from each other, too, modify and adapt and this complicates your search for authenticity further.

So this is the curse of recipe cornucopia. How do you pick the most delicious and, especially, the most original carbonara out of all that spills from your computer screen? Here is a technique adapted from the venerable scholarly textual criticism, the method literary scholars use to find their way among the abundance of manuscripts of ancient and medieval works when thousands of them exist, many full of errors, variations, and deviations, and determine the original. And if the original has been lost, some linguistic detective work is needed to trace what it would have most likely looked like. Indeed, recipe research is so similar to textual criticism that I wonder how come it has escaped scholars’ attention so far. This is how I do it:

First, recensio: If you are looking to fix some real moussaka, for example, gather as many attestations of moussaka recipes as possible. Be exhaustive: the potatoes or eggplant, ground meat or vegetarian, white-sauce-topping or plain, layered or non-layered kinds.

Selecito: carefully study the attestations, judging each extant recipe on its merits. Some sources are more authoritative than others. A heavy cookbook with no pictures published in Greece is more trustworthy than a study abroad blog whose author may have misunderstood the authentic character of moussaka.

Collatio: Then establish which one derives from which, based on errors (using butter to fry the onions), significant variations (where the eggplant and the potato branch diverge) and key omissions. Your goal is to establish the stemma, say, something like a family tree of their origin.

Emendatio: by establishing which elements must be later additions, which were local variations to be ignored (say, the usage of an herb too specific to a certain area) and which were contamination from external culinary ideologies, you should be able to reconstruct what the original authentic autograph looked like.

Sounds too complicated? Don’t despair. Postmodern textual criticism deems that each text has its place and importance, and right to existence, because it has been created and operated as its own work in its particular circumstances and artistic criteria. The “authentic original” is an abandoned concept. So, if you prefer, you may become a follower of this scholarly current and give each recipe equal weight and credit. And just pick the one you like the best.


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