Following lists of instructions will impair your judgementby Julian Baggini / January 23, 2014 / Leave a comment
© BBC/Comic Relief/Love Productions/Scott Kershaw
Recipes are everywhere. Serious newspapers that would once have sniffed at cookery pages now regularly invite us to inhale deeply the beautiful aromas of their homemade quinoa salads, sticky toffee puddings and squash risottos, while cookbook sales are one of the few bright spots in the otherwise gloomy book industry. And for every literal recipe there is a metaphorical one: for life, health, fitness, success, economic growth—and disaster.
This choice of metaphor is revealing. Our tendency to describe courses of action as “recipes” or “formulas” suggests we believe problems are best solved by following step-by-step procedures that lead to guaranteed results. I think there is something deeply problematic in this, in and out of the kitchen. Recipes of all kinds are traps, and cooking provides the clearest illustration of why.
Food is an increasing source of anxiety in the developed west. The problem can be summed up in one sentence: we eat too many of the wrong things, which are produced in the wrong ways. The sources of this malaise are numerous, but many believe that a big part of the problem is that we eat far too many processed foods and are increasingly bemused when faced with a raw ingredient. Delia Smith was accused of dumbing down when she gave viewers of her TV series instructions on how to boil an egg back in 1998, but she saw that many had forgotten how to cook even the simplest of things.
Getting people to cook more of their own food from scratch is no panacea for obesity or solution to global food supply problems, but it would surely be a major step towards healthier eating. People who cook are more aware of the ingredients they are using, less dependent on processed foods, and more mindful of the whole process of eating.
The most obvious way to encourage this is to give people recipes. But surely people already have enough—they’re just not using them. Cookbooks are notorious for being more owned than used. The Italian company Sacla recently commissioned a survey of Britons which found 40 per cent of celebrity cookbooks bought were never even used. And when in 2008 Jamie Oliver set out to save the good people of Rotherham with his Ministry of Food, by teaching people recipes and encouraging them to “pass it…