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 on,” the exercise flopped. The eponymous town centre HQ finally closed last year.
The reason why recipes do not do the trick is that they are part of the very problem they are being called upon to cure. Where food cultures are strong, recipes hardly exist. I’m half Italian and I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of my relatives use a cookbook. Many Italians have a single battered copy of Ada Boni’s 1929 classic Il talismano della felicità or the 1950 imitation Il cucchiaio d’argento, both compendia of traditional recipes used as reference for those more rarely cooked dishes. But day-to-day they simply cook dishes from a memorised repertoire that they have learned over the years.
This is how everyone used to cook, and we can still do so today. Take soup. If you understand the basic principles of soup making—frying aromatics, adding solid ingredients, stock, herbs and spices—then you never need a recipe, but will be equipped to make an almost infinite variety. With each new one you make, you will be honing your judgement, so you can decide how much of any ingredient to add without needing to consult a list or even get out any scales.
You don’t need to be a seasoned chef to work this freely. Cooking is not like music, where good improvisation requires years of learning scales and correct fingering so that playing becomes second nature. Traditionally, learning to cook was about developing judgement from the beginning, learning by nose, tongue and eye, as well as a little by ear. Theory was entirely neglected, practice was all. Take one basic question: how do I know when it’s ready? Not by looking at the clock, but at the food, touching it, tasting it.
The fact that the cookery revival in Britain is so recipe-led is a sign that we have, as a nation, forgotten how to cook and so need a list of numbered instructions in order to produce something palatable. This increased reliance on recipes only perpetuates our culinary illiteracy, as it means we continue to rely on what is on the page and do not develop our feel for food.
This is but one specific instance of a more general truth: codification is the death of judgement. The more any kind of task or procedure is reduced to a formalised and strictly determined set of steps, the less we use and develop our judgement, what Aristotle called practical wisdom, phronesis. We need practical wisdom because in many domains facts and evidence together cannot settle an issue, and nor can a set of formalised instructions capture all that is necessary to achieve the best result. There is a gap between what can be fully explained objectively and what is needed to achieve the best results practically, like the gap we see between the musical score and the performance.
Practical wisdom—good judgement—is needed to bridge these unavoidable lacunae. It is not an excuse for lack of rigour but a way of dealing with the limits of rigour. Hence practical wisdom differs from mere opinion or hunch because it is receptive to evidence and seeks justification. Good cooks, for example, are always ready to change the way they make certain dishes if someone shows them an alternative is better.
The psychologists Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe argue that in the contemporary world practical wisdom is being pushed out as we rely more and more on “rules and incentives” and “sticks and carrots” to ensure things are done “correctly.” In the modern world, often for laudable motives of transparency and consistency, discretion and personal judgement are being replaced by checklists, formalised procedures and strict rules. Apply for a credit card, job, university place or membership of a club and you will be assessed according to objective criteria which often leave little room for adjustment according to your idiosyncrasies. But as Schwartz and Sharpe say, “substituting rules for wisdom doesn’t work.” Take hiring decisions. The tick box approach requires assessing everyone only on the basis of what they all share and so can be directly compared against, when it is precisely those things which make us different and unique which are most important to determining whether we are the right people for the role. By using a formula that can be applied to everyone, we miss what is special in each individual.
There is of course a place for strict procedures. Although no one wants aircraft pilots to trust their flight computers entirely or surgeons to stop exercising their professional judgement, both do benefit from running through a rigorous and systematic checklist before starting work. More often than not, however, the call for yet more formal checks and processes is misguided.
One reason for this is that you cannot rely on rules, only the people you trust to follow or enforce them. Take safety and integrity in the food supply chain. The horse meat scandal shocked many, who could not understand how equine flesh could make its way into what were supposed to be beef products. Predictably enough, the response for this was to promise more rigorous procedures to make sure it could never happen again. And yet if you look at the rules which were already in place, they were pretty strict. The problem was that you can’t possibly monitor every stage of every process.
This is an inherent problem of any system built on rules rather than trust, and tightening the rules is simply a way of further squeezing trust out of the system. I’ve spoken to many people in the food industry who care about quality and animal welfare, and all of them at some point talked about trust for not just the integrity but also the good judgement of suppliers, farmers and producers. This isn’t blind faith. They build relationships and get to know them. But at the same time it is not the kind of bond which provides legal, verifiable guarantees.
In principle, it might be possible to come up with a set of rules and a sufficiently rigorous means of policing them to make sure they are upheld. This, however, simply opens the door to mere box-ticking: sticking to the letter of the law but not the spirit. As restaurateur Henry Dimbleby put it to me, “animal husbandry is incredibly complicated, so if you set rules, you’ll always find some bastard who will do it cheapest within those rules and inevitably that will cause problems.”
Organics also face this problem. Organic standards are strictly codified and anyone who wants to be certified as organic has to follow them. But there are clearly some very big operations that meet the criteria which are much more industrial in their processes than some smaller farms that don’t. “You can get massive organic farms,” Dominic Coyte of Neal’s Yard Dairy told me, “and is the husbandry any better there than a farmer who’s not because he can’t afford a Soil Association certificate or he just thinks it’s all a bit barmy?”
From the farm to the fork, the trend to rely more and more on codified recipes, rules and regulations is diminishing the role of judgement and creating the conditions for just some of the problems we are trying to avoid. But how can we revive the art of practical wisdom? Isn’t it too risky to loosen formal systems and leave more to individual discretion? Not if we do it wisely.
Cooking once again provides a neat template for this. To encourage the development of good judgement, we need recipes that are stripped back to the essentials rather than specifying exact quantities and cooking times. Simply explain the general principles and leave the rest to the cook. For example, here’s my “recipe” for a Basque marmitako, a fisherman’s stew. Soften some chopped red peppers and garlic in some olive oil. Add some pimenton (or smoked paprika) and salt, then diced potatoes and tinned tomatoes, with juice, so that the whole dish is just covered by the liquid. Add a little water or red wine if necessary. Simmer until the potatoes are cooked and then stir in some tinned tuna, heating it through.
You might ask, but how much pimenton? The answer is: how spicy do you like it? How soft should the potatoes be? As soft as you like. How many potatoes? You can decide for yourself how many you’d like, surely? We need more recipes like this so that people gain the experience and confidence to make decisions for themselves, ones which are appropriate to their tastes, what is available, how much time they have and so on.
The general principles behind this kind of recipe also apply to other spheres of life where we have become too prescriptive. We should stipulate only what must be stipulated and leave the rest to discretion. Rules should cover minimum standards and not try to achieve optimal ones, as to do that necessarily means leaving little or no space for anyone to exercise judgement.
Take education, perhaps the highest profile victim of the recipe culture. League tables and overly restrictive curricula have led to teaching to the test, teachers left with no leeway to bring in their passions, and students taught to measure their own ability solely in terms of test scores. Intellectual flexibility, a cornerstone of good judgement, has been replaced by mental rigidity. Almost all sensible educationalists would prefer curricula which mandate only what no student should leave school without knowing and let school governors and the teaching profession decide the rest.
In much the same way, the likes of hospital management guidelines, local authority tendering rules, and health and safety legislation can all be loosened to specify only what must be specified, and leave all else to others. Rigid rules should be reserved for where they really are essential. You should want your gas oven to meet high health and safety standards, for instance, and you don’t want egg producers to be able to cram as many chickens into as small a space as possible.
An insistence on transparency and accountability can provide all the further safeguards we need. Laws don’t stop chefs spitting in food—open kitchens do. More useful than a hundred rules on food manufacture is the ability of the consumer to know exactly where the food has come from and how it has been produced. People can hide behind rulebooks, but they can’t disguise their failings if they are open to inspection.
In the kitchen and in the rest of life, recipes promise more than they can deliver and in the long run only leave us more helpless and deskilled. For much of what really matters in life, there is no algorithm, and we should shun all recipes that pretend otherwise.