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What Is a Recipe?

Abstract

The ontology of recipes is by and large unexplored. In this paper, I offer a three-steps account. After introducing some key terminology, I distinguish four main options for a theory of recipes: realism, constructivism, existentialism, and the naïve approach. Hence, I first argue that recipes are social entities whose identity depends (also) on a process of identification, typically performed by means of a performative utterance on the part of a cook (e.g. “This is fettuccine Alfredo,” “This is falafel”); thus, the best theoretical framework for a theory of recipes is a constructivist. Secondly, I argue that the identity of recipes can be grasped only by being suitably acquainted with the dishes that instantiate them, because of the impossibility to spell out recipes in details that would match a full-fledged dish; hence, the authority to establish the identity of a recipe rests on a process of apprenticeship. Finally, I argue that the identity of recipes and—vicariously—of the dishes that instantiate them, rest on three factors: the expertise required on the part of the cook; authenticity (in turn based on the fit and approval rate of any purported rendering); and the open-ended character of recipes.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Note that I am not claiming that anything that is edible is a dish. The characterization offered here is relational, that is a dish is a dish-for-someone-in-a-context. At any moment, there is usually some edible stuff in the vicinity of an agent that the agent would never see as “ready to be eaten up” (e.g. clay, worms, pine shoots).

  2. 2.

    The extended concept of a recipe may suggest to some readers that a theory of recipes as kinds of actions—paralleling Davies’s theory of musical works as actions (2004)—is most apt. In the rest of the paper, however, I provide an account that diverges from Davies’s, in two main respects: first because in my view the identity of recipes rests on a performative utterance, rather than on the mere actions that bring to the making of a dish; secondly, and more importantly, because the identity of recipes depends on collective judgments of authenticity, not simply on the actions that bring to the making of a dish.

  3. 3.

    Before moving on, some words about beverages and foods involving fermentation may be useful. I see no principled reason to exclude items such as wines, spirits, vinegars, pickles, dried meats, and cheeses from the list of recipes. Wines, for instance, can be conceived as recipes that are executed once a year by expert makers, following specific scripts. The literature on the philosophy of wine is, by now, quite extensive and includes a few discussions of the ontological status of wine too. For some recent contributions, cfr. Burnham and Skilleas (2012), Borghini (2012), Scruton (2009), Smith (2007) and Todd (2010). Some contributions to the philosophy of beer (Hales and Jackson 2008) and whisky (Allhoff and Adams 2010) have been produced as well, while cheese—qua cultural item—remains so far mostly studied by anthropologists and historians.

  4. 4.

    Some parallel disputes between realists and constructivists in the philosophy of biology are of importance to frame the debate on recipes. Although space limitations do not allow to bring in full-fledged comparisons, the reader may want to consult at least also the debate on the ontological status of human races and the debate on the ontological status of sexual categories as applied to humans.

  5. 5.

    Sims (2009: 234), drawing on (Jackson 1999), comes close to suggest this view in her discussion of authenticity: “instead of talking about «authenticity», we should focus upon «authentification», which is the process whereby people make claims for authenticity and the interests that those claims serve.” (Sims 2009: 324).

  6. 6.

    It may be rebutted that pizza is not a recipe, but a cluster of recipes. The rebuttal would fall short of its target, though, as many other examples can be produced: ice cream (including specific versions, e.g. strawberry ice cream), croissant, lemon cake, … Nonetheless, the rebuttal points the finger at an important question, related to the hard problem of recipes: how to tell a single recipe from a cluster of recipes? I see no principled manner to address the question. But, I can point out that similar puzzles exist for musical and literary works. Is the Happy Birthday song the same song also when recited in languages other than English, or does each language have its own “Happy Birthday” song? Is the Exodus the same book in all languages, or does each language have its own Exodus book? Copyright laws tend to favor the first option, which is ontologically more parsimonious. But, that is not the only take on the matter; think for example of the Quran, which many would argue cannot exist in another language form, or think of some notable poems such as Beowulf, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Commedia.

  7. 7.

    I thank an anonymous referee for prompting this qualification.

  8. 8.

    Notable exceptions are so-called “signature dishes,” such as Bottura’s Chicken chiken where are you?

  9. 9.

    I shall stay away here from the question of whether cooking can be an artform. For some chief contributions, cfr. (Telfer 1996; Korsemeyer 1999.

  10. 10.

    Today’s media offer the opportunity to apprentice also by watching a video on the Internet or on TV. It is, however, important not to overestimate the capacity of contemporary food shows to transfer skills to their viewers. There seems to be a stark difference between the cooking classes offered by Julia Child on WGBH and the sportive element underscoring most contemporary cooking shows (cfr. also Pollan 2009).

  11. 11.

    The full article can be retrieved at http://time.com/22011/europes-war-on-american-cheese/.

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Acknowlegment

I thank an anonymous referee, Naomi Arbit and Carolyn Richardson for helpful comments on a previous version of this paper. Research for the paper grew out of a long period of confrontation with colleagues and friends, including: Andrea Baldini, Dario Cecchini, Andrea Falaschi, Christia Mercer, Nicola Perullo, Bridget Potter, Gus Rancatore, Achille Varzi, Merry “Corky” White, and Ben Wurgaft. I wish to thank also the students in the seminars on the philosophy of food that I taught over the past 7 years at the College of the Holy Cross and at the University of Gastronomic Sciences.

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Correspondence to Andrea Borghini.

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Borghini, A. What Is a Recipe?. J Agric Environ Ethics 28, 719–738 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10806-015-9556-9

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Keywords

  • Recipes
  • Ontology
  • Identity
  • Authenticity in food