Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Modern Conceit

One of my hobbies is cooking from very early cookbooks, including one big one from the tenth century. Recently I had an online exchange with a friend who had made a fermented drink from a recipe based loosely on—which is to say sharply modified from—a period recipe. When I asked why she didn't use one of the period recipes from the same source her response was that she would rather have something that tasted good than something that was historically authentic.

There are  some things which moderns do better than people in the past, such as curing diseases. But I know of no reason to believe that cooking is one of them. As evidence against that conceit, consider traditional cuisines such as Chinese or Indian. They are different from modern western cooking, but if they were strikingly inferior they would not be as popular as they are. For more examples of things we aren't better at, consider Jane Austen's novels, Bach's music, Donne's poetry, or the jewels of the Sutton Hoo Treasure.

It's true that we have access to some ingredients not available to a medieval European cook, most notably New World foodstuffs such as peanuts, potatoes, and tomatoes. But in the particular case I am discussing, the alteration in the recipe consisted of adding an ingredient that we know the author of the original had access to, since he used it in an unrelated recipe. My friend's unstated assumption was that either she or whoever online had created her recipe knew more about the making of fermented drinks than someone who had much more extensive experience making them than most moderns have. Because modern people know more.                       

I have no objection to making things that are not historically authentic—most of what I cook and eat isn't. But the argument struck me as an example of an error I have seen before in a variety of other contexts. Hence this post.

Another example that I have encountered repeatedly is the Columbus myth, the belief that the difference between Columbus and those who argued against his voyage was that he knew the world was round and they thought it was flat. It is a widely believed story, but it is not only false, it is very nearly the opposite of the truth. A spherical earth had been orthodox cosmology ever since classical antiquity. The difference between Columbus and his critics was that they knew how big around the earth was, they knew how wide Asia was, they could subtract the one number from the other, hence they could calculate that he would run out of food and water long before he got to his intended destination. Columbus, in contrast, combined a much too small estimate for the circumference of the earth with a much too large figure for the width of Asia in order to convince himself that the difference was a short enough distance to make his planned voyage possible.

Why is this wildly ahistorical account so widely believed? Because it lets moderns feel superior to all those ignorant people in the past. 

I could offer other examples of the same pattern, beliefs about people in the past inconsistent with the historical evidence, based on and supporting the unstated assumption of our superiority to them. It is the same motive that makes men believe they are superior to women, women that they are superior to men, Americans that they are superior to foreigners, Frenchmen that they are superior to everyone. Feeling superior feels good, and the less likely you are to confront the people you feel superior to, the easier it is to maintain it. 

Men often meet women, women men, Americans foreigners, Frenchmen non-French, which can be a problem. Believing in your superiority to people long dead is safer.


Jonathan said...

I like it! Nice post.

What I think you omitted is that people's tastes have probably changed in modern times. What people eat and drink is different these days, and you tend to like what you're accustomed to.

So, the old recipes may have been perfectly adapted to old tastes, but may be maladapted to modern tastes.

Mike Bravo NZ said...

Regarding your cooking example, I wouldn't be surprised if there lingers a bias towards believing the Whig theory of history. Rather incorrectly of course, but is seems to be a prevalent bias wherever I look.

Charles Krug said...

Regarding food, there are a couple factors at play.

First, most "Cookbooks" that I've seen seem to be "Descriptions of food that important people ate," as opposed to "Instructions that a competent cook can use to replicate the dish consistently." David translated one of the exceptions.

Moreover, within our segment of the reeinactment community, there is a tendency to over-claim or extrapolate beyond the available documentation—for example if someone wrote, "1lb of saffron" on a bill for a meal, absent other evidence, we don't know whether the cook intended to use that much saffron at that particular meal or if he was laying up stores until the next visit from the spice merchant.

Finally, there are a number of persistent myths about Medieval food—e.g. strongly spiced to hide bad meat, the bad habits of Renn Fair cooks—that have unduly influenced the reenactment community at-large.

I know that in Shanghai, some "very traditional" food uses Capsicum peppers. QED that, while delicious and unlike anything available here in the Midwest US, it's not that ancient a preparation.


Tibor said...

Great post. I especially liked that you mentioned Columbus. I also find this annoying, because it is being taught at schools (such as mine...but I was also told other nonsense there such as that glass is a slow moving liquid - and that was in "the best grammar school in Pilsen"...or so we were often told). I was attending a maths workshop two years ago which also had two talks about the history of mathematics (which, after a few difficult talks about SPDEs and such was a very nice break). One of them was about Eratosthenes' measurement of Earth and (I forgot who did the other) measurement of the Universe (which estimated the relative sizes and distances of Earth, Moon and Sun). I was struck by how ingenious the method was, using rather simple mathematical tools (Pythagorean geometry) and a few cleverly noticed facts. And at least in the case of measurement of Earth, it was extremely accurate (the other was worse, as it required a measurement of the angle of sun rays in a certain place during noon...and used that number in a tangent function...which explodes at 90 degrees and so a tiny difference in the measurement near 90 can cause a huge difference in the outcome...otherwise the method was correct and it at least was correct in showing that the moon is smaller than Earth and relatively close and Sun is much bigger and far).

I also recommend Mike Loades' programme Going Medieval in which he is making exactly the point that people in the middle ages were not idiots and often came up with very ingenious solutions to their problems. They did not have as much as we do in terms of technology, but they could use what they have very cleverly. I also loved his series "Weapons that made Britan" which clears some common misconceptions (such as that medieval knights were extremely slow in armor). The show made me consider picking up medieval swordfighting (which, to my surprise, was not only very methodical but also consisted of a lot of moves that did not involve the sword or that were to be used if you lose the sword...at least in the German school from the 16th century), I'm still thinking about that, but probably I won't :) But while I always considered the middle ages to be a drab dirty and rather uninteresting period, Loades shows quite the opposite. So I might definitely learn a bit more about those times.

While probably some or maybe even most commoners in Columbus' time were convinced that the Earth was flat, I doubt any scholar thought that, he would be laughed away, as they had access to Eratosthenes' work and agreed with it. It is just some, such as Columbus' were bad at basic arithmetic...and great at having extraordinary luck :)

Last but not least:


This wikipedia page should be printed out and distributed to all schools :)

Tibor said...

By the way is today's Chinese or Indian cuisine really so faithful to the medieval times?

It reminds me that I saw a wonderful hawker stand in Singapore which served "western food". It was about as close to actual western food as the "Chinese" fast foods in Europe are close to actual Chinese food. Basically, it was sort of like Chinese fried food with fries instead of rice. I sort of regret not trying it out.

Anonymous said...

As Jack Handy said:

"We tend to scoff at the beliefs of the ancients. But we can't scoff at them personally, to their faces, and this is what annoys me."

David Friedman said...

Charles: I don't know how early capsicum peppers made it to China, but maize was recorded in a Chinese source by the mid-sixteenth century. The particular case I mentioned in the post, as you might guess from what the recipe was for, involved a recipe from Digby, who is seventeenth century—and, I should add, gives quantities in his recipes.

David Friedman said...

Charles: The period cookbooks really are cookbooks, although most of them provide fewer details than a modern recipe would. Those are details which an experienced cook can at least approximately guess. I would estimate that, on average, it takes us about two or three tries to get a satisfactory version worked out.

And I haven't translated any cookbooks, although I've gotten other people to translate several.

Mark said...

Is there any possibility that the modern preparer of fermented drinks tried the original recipe, didn't like it, and then published a modified recipe that she preferred?

Mark said...

As for me personally, I know that I suffer from this modern conceit. And it's because I draw a trend line from the taste of food that I have available to me now through the taste of food that I recall growing up, and it quickly heads towards incredibly bland unflavored food.

And then I remember how spectacularly wealthy we are today in comparison. If I assume that good cooking was a luxury good, affordable only by the wealthy, it's easy to assume that bad cooking was the norm, and maybe even such that good cooking from 500 years ago would be considered average cooking today.

But I concede that these are all just assumptions on my part.

Tibor said...

Mark: You can cook in a cheap way. A very tasty (and refreshing in the summer) recipe simply contains soft curd (mixed with yogurt perhaps) with a bit of salt, chives and boiled potatoes.

Of course, potatoes are not medieval, but I am just trying to illustrate that there are cheap foods (even by medieval standards) that taste very good.

Loades shows a few examples of medieval meals in the "Going Medieval" documentary. It was a pike fish baked in dough I think. I only saw it on TV, but allegedly it was very good :) I was also surprised that the people then drank a lot of beer - because it contains a lot of energy. They would basically drink it with all the meals they had.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Tentative theory: this is actually an American reflex-- to assume that one's intuitions are better than following a tradition, even if one doesn't have experience to build the intuitions from.

Yorffo said...


Nice post, thank you.

"Frenchmen think that they are superior to everyone."

Is this claim based on your personal experience?

LH said...


Well, there is this...


Take a look at the chart. Frenchmen's opinion of themselves under the arrogant category is amusing at the least, and perhaps informative.

Joshua Kronengold said...

While your post is true, for the most part, it's worth noting that modern communication and population do tell a tale as well. Sure, the average modern person isn't a better brewer or cook than the average historical person -- but in addition to having access to many ingredients the historical person doesn't, they're in the company of hundreds or thousands of other modern cooks or brewers. There are more of us, and we're much better at talking to one another.

So the -best- of modern cooking and brewing is almost certainly better than that in antiquity, and in some other cases we can stand on the shoulders of giants.

Tibor said...

LH: The poll is quite funny.

It is interesting to note that the people who were part of the survey in each country consider themselves to be the most compassionate...and they can all be correct. People are more likely to help those who are similar to them (or whom they consider to be similar...which is not necessarily the same thing).

Also, people in most countries (Czechs and Italians seem to be an exception) vote themselves to be the least arrogant.

But generally, I would not dare to make any strong statement based on a poll like this. It is still fun though - as was David's remark about Frenchmen. My personal experience with them confirms this reputation in many (though not all) cases, but I have no proper data to make bold conclusions.

As for Nancy's theory - I don't think that is a specifically American trait, I think such views are common in Europe as well...and sometimes they are combined in quite an odd fashion in which the distant ancient past (thousands of years back) is glorified as a time of harmony and peace whereas the more recent (and much better documented) past is looked down upon. But that is perhaps because the distant past is often so distant that they can dream it up in any way they want.

David Friedman said...


The surviving medieval cookbooks are pretty much all from the upper class. The closest thing to an exception that occurs to me is _Le Menagier de Paris_, written by someone who appears to be in the upper middle class and describes one dish as too luxurious for his household, suitable for a knight's household.

And the recipes are not bland. They make extensive use of herbs and spices. In most cases we don't know the quantities, but we do know the ingredients.

David Friedman said...

Yorffo: The claim about Frenchmen is not based on period experience. My own experience suggests that they are less chauvinistic than their reputation.

But that's a small sample.

David Friedman said...


Shouldn't your argument apply to poetry, novels, music and the construction of violins as well? Do you think the evidence supports your conclusion in those cases?

Power Child said...

@David Friedman:

Shouldn't your argument [that we may be better at things now because we have more access to others who are doing the same things] apply to poetry, novels, music and the construction of violins as well?

We all eat. True there is a growing number of households where the closest thing to cooking is pressing a button on a microwave, but cooking is still something most people do at some point, and thus at least one person in each household typically has a compelling reason to know a few recipes, and to use available tools to improve these and learn new ones.

The popularity of TV shows, websites, and apps for recipes and other information on cooking is evidence of this.

This is not true of poetry, novels, or violins. There are indeed modern media tools to help people improve their craft of all these things, but they are less popular because only a minority of people have any existing reason to take part.

So if I were to answer your questions to Joshua in his stead, I'd say No, Yes.

Power Child said...

BTW, I think we definitely are getting better at cooking, so long as "we" is taken to mean some certain subset of the population that is interested in cooking or particularly cares about what they eat. Usually this also coincides with the set that can be categorized as college educated white people with above-average IQs. Think of the people involved in the various foodie movements. The people who buy quinoa, etc.

Meanwhile, "Grandma's" is still a viable prefix to connote high quality when placed in front of the name of some food item, suggesting that younger people can't cook as well as their elders.

Patri Friedman said...

I'm surprised to see this viewpoint from an economist. There are so many fundamental reasons why modern people are likely to perform better at almost any goal; the exceptions are those rare cases where a goal used to be far more important than it is now (making amazing bows out of natural materials).

For example, the global population is orders of magnitude larger, so there are that many more experiments and ideas competing. Far more people have significant free time, over that required for subsistence, to invest in improving knowledge in all areas, including cooking.

We have global communications to allow for new fusions of far-distant cuisines and global shipping to give every area access to not only the local ingredients they had before but also global ingredients.

We have not only more ingredients, but more tools - more accurate temperature control and measurement, time control, better pots, better containers - most of which were adopted because they work better than the old tools. In those rare cases where old tools are better (perhaps the way cast iron cooks?), we can still purchase the old tools. Chinese and Indian food may be non-Western, but it is not non-modern - they use modern technology, just like everyone else, because they find it superior.

We have not merely new world ingredients, but numerous new breeds of old world food, that have been bred for taste for centuries longer than in medieval times.

For any purpose that even a small fraction of moderns care about (which definitely includes making simple fermented beverages), to argue for the superiority of a medieval skill is to argue that more capital, technology, accumulated knowledge, raw materials, communication, and ideas somehow leads to a worse product. You are arguing that the technology for making a simple, delicious fermented beverage has not improved in centuries. And you are arguing that all of the people who choose to use more recent recipes, tools, and ingredients, when they could instead use the historical ones, are wrong and are making a worse product when they could be making a better one.

I find this a rather perplexing set of things for an economist to be claiming.

Almost all of your examples are in the arts, which are not matters of producing an ideal product but rather reflect changing tastes over time. If you happen to like historical tastes, then of course you will like historical poetry, music, and jewelry. But the modern world could still better satisfy those tastes if it chose. If the rewards to composing classical music relative to other roles in society were as high now as in the days of Bach, it seems likely that we would get many many Bachs, just due to larger population and better nutrition, let alone the impact of new technology to enable more rapid composition.

I don't think that making fermented drinks is an obscure historical taste. There are approximately 1.2 million homebrewers in the US alone. If they use variations on historical recipes rather than the original, it is because they like those variations better. Why is cooking different from every other marketplace of ideas, ingredients, and outcome?

David Friedman said...

Patri writes:

"There are so many fundamental reasons why modern people are likely to perform better at almost any goal"

A couple of points:

1. In principle, a larger population should mean that the best are better, although it's not clear that the evidence supports that prediction. China at present has a larger population than the U.S. plus Europe but seems to be producing so far no first rate scientists, a point the Chinese themselves have commented on. At the other end, there are quite a lot of cases of small population polities, such as Periclean Athens, Elizabethan England, and Saga period Iceland that produced an enormous intellectual output relative to their population.

2. In any case, the issue here is not whether the best is better. It's whether a more or less random modern is more skilled in an art than an expert from some centuries back.

3. In the particular case being discussed, as I mentioned, the alteration in the recipe consisted of adding an ingredient that we know the author of the original had access to, since he used it in another recipe.

More generally, I would expect the addition of New World foods to make possible some tasty dishes, such as guacamole, that could not have been made in Europe before Columbus. But that means more tasty dishes, not necessarily better dishes. The introduction of Maize and peanuts was important because they were different from the old World crops and so could be productive on land less useful before, but we don't observe that they eliminated their Old World competitors. Similarly, there are lots of dishes still made and enjoyed that don't use ingredients not available five hundred years ago.

4. "Almost all of your examples are in the arts, which are not matters of producing an ideal product but rather reflect changing tastes over time. If you happen to like historical tastes"

Except that my examples were of things that moderns largely regard as superior to what is being done today. Consider the market price of a Stradivarius, or the fact that people still read Austen. Shaw may have thought he wrote better plays than Shakespeare but I don't think many people would agree with him.

5. "And you are arguing that all of the people who choose to use more recent recipes, tools, and ingredients, when they could instead use the historical ones, are wrong and are making a worse product when they could be making a better one."

Not at all. I am arguing that if I, or some other modern with no special expertise, decides to invent his own recipe it is unlikely to be an improvement over existing recipes, old or new.

My complaint is not with the idea that moderns are as good as people in the past but with the assumption that they are better, so that a modern persons simply by virtue of being modern can do a better job at almost anything than could a person from the past.

There is nothing wrong with someone experimenting with recipes or violin design or musical styles in the hope of coming up with something good. My complaint is with someone doing so on the theory that of course what he does will be better than what was done in the Middle Ages (in the particular case discussed actually the 17th century) because modern people by virtue of being modern are automatically superior.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

One area where I believe modern people are not as good as the past is selective breeding for flavor. There's a reason heirloom plants and animals have a good reputation.

Unfortunately, this means that such people as are breeding for flavor are operating under a considerable handicap. I'm still hoping that some new varieties will be so good they'll get noticed.


It looks as though the best replica Stradivarius violins are comparable to the real thing, butI haven't heard of any modern violin that generally considered to be better than a Stradivarius.

AbsoluteZero said...


I generally agree, including your reply to Patri's comment. There's one thing I'd like to add. You said, "China at present has a larger population than the U.S. plus Europe but seems to be producing so far no first rate scientists, ..."

This depends on one's definition of "first rate". One metric is the number of scientists and researchers that make the list at Highly Cited Researchers (highlycited.com). In the 2014 list, China comes in at number 4, behind the US, UK, and Germany. The US has by far the most, more than 1700. The UK has almost 400, followed by Germany, about 170, and China, about 160.

Clearly China is significantly behind. I believe this is consistent with its stage of development, in general, and in education and research in particular. And the US and UK both have long traditions of leadership in this area. But I think being number 4 in a list like this does mean China has some scientists and researchers that can be considered first rate, or maybe world class.

Gordon said...

I agree with David's point, but I find the example that lead him to it rather puzzling. The Gricean implication of "would rather have something that tasted good than something that was historically authentic" is that the first something tastes better than the second. And that is a powerful, if not conclusive, reason to prefer the recipe that produces the first to the other, whatever the level of skill of the two cooks, unless the first was being presented as part of a strictly period meal.

David Friedman said...

I have no reason to believe that the person I was talking with had ever made or tasted the original, so took the "rather have something good" as implying a reason to expect the modified recipe to be better than the original.

Hence my point.

David Friedman said...


My comment on China was based on a discussion in the book by Coase and Wang I mentioned in another recent post. I think the standard of "first rate" being used was much higher than in your definition. The question wasn't why they had 160 instead of 400 but why they had zero instead of two or three or four:

"Qian Xuesen, a most respected Chinese scientist, asked a sobering question before his death in 2009: “Why have Chinese universities not produced a single world-class original thinker or innovative scientist since 1949?”

Tibor said...

AbsoluteZero: It is actually interesting that the number of Great scientists does not simply seem to be a function of the population size and the development of the country.

Russia has been an underdeveloped country for several centuries (compared to pretty much all European countries at the same time) now, but even in the era of the soviet union when it was behind the most, it produced a number of great scientists (some of whom then succeeded at emigrating to the US, but that's a different story) while the Soviet Union was (I think) not particularly more developed than China and the population size was a third that of China's. Most of them in subjects that were not political and so less dangerous to do. So most hast to do with mathematics and physics...although Stalin once said that "cybernetics is a bourgeois pseudoscience"...and it was supressed - until they told him that it can be used to make better rockets. And Hayek mentions in his Road to Serfdom that even the research of some mathematicians was considered "pseudoscience" for ideological reasons both in the Soviet Union and the Nazi Germany (the respective "reasons" to condemn them were different in those two countries).

It happens often that when you have one great mind, it attracts a couple more (Gauß and his famous students, Banach and the Polish school which basically started and made great contributions to functional analysis,..) and they create a school of thought. That is the case of Kolmogorov in Russia, probably others as well.

So while it is definitely true that when you increase the population size and wealth, you get better educated people, there is yet something more to it when you consider the very best of their fields, since some differences between countries cannot be explained as simply a function of those two variables.

AbsoluteZero said...

No disagreement. And that wasn't my definition. It's just another data point that I think does mean something. Have not read Coase and Wang. Just got the book, it's in my queue. I really need to read it.
No disagreement with your general point. However, I do beileve China was far less developed than the Soviet Union. GDP per capita, PPP, inflation adjusted, from GapMinder:
Year, USSR/Russia, China
1950, 5013, 394
1960, 6960, 583
1970, 9835, 685
1980, 11517, 934
1990, 12633, 1647
Many people (even many young people in China today), have no idea just how poor China has been. China started growing around 1980, and that's why we see the gap shrinking by 1990, but even then it was a 7.7x difference. By the end of 2013, using IMF numbers, Russia's GDP per capita, PPP, was still almost 82% higher than China's. This also shows how dramatic the changes have been, to go from more than 10x to under 2x in less than half a century.

Tibor said...


Thanks, that is interesting and I must then retract my example. I expected 1950s China to be no more than twice as poor as 1950s Soviet Union. But if those data are reliable then you cannot easily compare them. Also, it probably makes China the greatest example of the merits of market liberalization (even though still vastly imperfect, but that makes it even stronger) next to Hong Kong.

Power Child said...

To get back to David's original point, I agree it's generally dumb to assume out of hand that ancient masters were less capable than are average moderns.

We see this all the time in attitudes towards culture, where we presume that past so-called "injustices" were the result of those people being ignorant or foolish or evil, rather than perhaps those people having reasons for what they did that fit their time and which today may be no less valid but are simply taboo to discuss.

The question is, does this pattern become more true the more you get into the specific and the subjective (e.g. cooking a particular dish) and less true the more you get into the general and the objective (e.g. whether slavery benefits a society)?

Anonymous said...

I think it's human nature to claim that one's own innovations are an improvement, otherwise why do them?

And, one is likely a little biased towards one's own version as being tastier than the original. To get a real comparison would need a blind taste test from a third party (how 'bout you?)