Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The First Experimental Science?

I have been reading through a large and interesting 10th century middles eastern cookbook. Unlike most medieval European cookbooks, it gives, for many recipes, precise quantities of ingredients. Reading it, it occurred to me that cooking may have been the first experimental science and perhaps a stepping stone towards other sciences.

The experiments get done daily, in the process of feeding people. It's natural enough for a cook to try different herbs, different spices, a hotter or cooler oven, a shorter or longer baking time, frying or boiling instead of baking, any of a wide range of variants, in the process of trying to produce something better.

In medieval Islam, and presumably other places, tasty food was a luxury valued by the rich—which meant that their cooks had both the resources and incentive to try to make it still tastier. And while some of what such experiments reveal consists of subtle differences, some is quite striking. Start with a basic  bread recipe—flour, water, and some source of yeast. Add a significant amount of fat—butter or oil—and instead of bread you have pastry crust. Brown flour in fat, stir in liquid, and you have just invented a new way of thickening your dish. Separate eggs, beat the whites thoroughly, and the result is almost magical. Experienced cooks can think of other examples.


Z-Man said...

I've always wondered why you don't see more of that today. With the exception of beer brewing recipes, that are indeed down to exact ingredients and mashing/fermenting temperatures.

Out of curiosity, are there any mustard recipes in your cookbook? It's hard to find exact mustard recipes, even though it's one of the world's oldest and most widespread (no pun intended) condiments.


Hegemonkey said...

A book for food recipes must be rare. The thought must have been scary of exposing valuable paper to a messy kitchen. Or maybe the idea that it would be wasteful to have a book for the kitchen cook/maid who couldn't read. Was the cookbook written for a royal family?

Maybe an earlier experimental "science" was alchemy. But would a successful alchemist reveal his secrets?

Anonymous said...

I suspect food was close. Tools with which to kill other people was the first.

I suspect you don't like the broader argument, but Guns, Germs and Steel is a great place to start on these things.

David Friedman said...

Z-man. Yes there are mustard recipes.

Hegemonkey: I don't think there is any evidence that al-Warraq was writing for a royal (or, in context, caliphal) family. Medieval Islam was a pretty literate culture, and although they didn't have the printing press, they did produce quite a lot of books.

Anonymous: I started _Guns, Germs and Steel_ and found it interesting, although I didn't finish it. But I later read a piece by the author on a subject I knew something about (medieval Iceland), and concluded that he could not be trusted.

Among other things, he blamed the decentralized legal system for some pirate attacks, without mentioning that they happened well after that system was replaced by royal rule. He made a claim about the system, without mentioning that one of the books he was supposed to be reviewing, written by someone much more knowledgeable than he was, made the opposite claim. He attributed certain features of the system to poverty, despite the fact that they originated early on when, by his account, Iceland wasn't poor, since it was consuming its(ecological) capital.

The most fundamental problem was that he blamed the problems of Iceland on the decentralized legal/political system when, according to his own theory, the same problems would have occurred with conventional royal rule. By his account (if correct I do not know), Iceland looked like Norway but was much more fragile ecologically, so the settlers used the land in ways that would have been sustainable back in Norway but had bad consequences in Iceland. That mistake had nothing to do with the nature of the legal/political system.

So I may or may not go back to the other book--it's a bit of a pain reading something, on a topic I don't know much about, by an author whose honesty I don't trust.

Anonymous said...

$192 for a cookbook?!

Anonymous said...

of course experimentation happened at some point in history, otherwise we would not have pizza.

but i must point something out. in my opinion experimenting with one's food is very dangerous:
1) one may poison one self. this would have been very easy to do thousands of years ago. in a tribal set up this is especially dangerous because others depend on one's skills so if one poisons oneself one also has a negative externality on others.
2) one's experiments could be safe but could end up creating inedible food. this is not desirable if one has only a very limited amount of food which is what most people had for most of history.

thus i think pre-historic (stone age) man probably mostly stuck to what he exactly knew. i suspect if one looks through out history one would find that most people ate mostly very bland food with zero variety.

i think experimentation with food only really happened once there was wealth which did not happen until only about 10000 years ago.

anecdotally one can see a similar pattern with food in the modern era. comparing the development of cuisine over the last 300 years one can see that new dishes and new ingredients only get introduced because of expanding wealth.

if one is looking for a first experimental science i suspect a better candidate would be manufacture and use of hunting equipment and clothes. it seems more intuitive to me that people would experiment with different furs or arrow heads than with their food.

as a rhetorical question: supposing you are not a biologist of some kind and one were to drop you into the middle of Amazon, would you be walking around and trying different sources of food (different berries, flowers, lizards etc.) or would you stick to the most obvious and safest: large mammals?


Anonymous said...

Nice observation. And fits well with the old adage "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." The outcome of an experiment determines what is real.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Hedgemonkey, I think a cookbook could have been kept reasonably safe and clean by having someone read from it to the cook(s). Labor was a lot cheaper back then. Or recipes could be copied onto a slate.

"Experimental" is a vague term, so it's hard to define what the first experimental science would have been. Fabric and ropework might have been pretty early-- does a knot work the way you think it should?

Possibly of interest: Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking.

William H Stoddard said...

My feeling for some time has been that cooking and baking are rather different. Baking is more of a science: You measure out quantities of ingredients, mix them together, and put the result into the oven for a specified time, and if you've got the right proportions then you have food. Cooking is more of an art: You throw stuff together, taste it, say, "A little bland, where the oregano?" or "Not thickening fast enough, better stir in a bit more cornstarch," and adjust as the dish develops. I enjoy the latter process a lot, but the former intimidates me and I hardly ever try it. And the thresholds seem more often critical in baking. So I'm going to nominate baking rather than cooking as "the first science."

Nightrunner said...

Cooking is engineering. Its about making useful/yummy things.

A libertarian yogi said...

You might want to check out this book. I started it a while back, but got sidetracked.

A libertarian yogi said...

...sorry. and that book would be... Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.

Arthur B. said...

Z-Man: there is. Kenji-Lopez Alt has a column that does just that, cooking as an experimental science. They make for fascinating reads