On the Value of Parametric Recipes and American Democracy
Most people are familiar with the concept of a recipe. It typically lists a set of proportions or amounts of various ingredients and the steps that should be taken in producing a food item for consumption. The goal of a recipe is to encapsulate a “best practice” which has been developed over time. Following the steps is important for a good result. If you cook a cake too little, it will be gooey but if you cook it too much, it will be burned. If you put in too much sugar or too little or too much flour or too little, the result will not be as good in terms of texture or taste.
If you stray from a recipe, there are many ways to go wrong. My mother used to make peanut butter cookies. Homemade peanut butter cookies still warm from the oven are amazing! And, this wonderful taste treat was repeated every time…except for the time that she accidentally put in salt instead of sugar. Randomly replacing one ingredient with another typically results in a recipe for disaster.
A “parameter” is something that can be changed from one situation to another. While randomly changing ingredients does not often work, there are many recipes which allow for huge flexibility among some of their ingredients. For example, I often make a salad for lunch. On top of the fresh vegetables and greens, I use pepper and one teaspoon of olive oil along with one teaspoon of balsamic vinegar. But which greens and vegetables are in these salads?
That depends. In every salad, I include vegetables according to which ones are the freshest. I also include a variety of colors. To me, a green salad that is all green is not so attractive as one with bits of color. Adding red peppers, radishes, tomatoes, yellow peppers, carrots, red onion, radicchio, or cheese makes it more appealing. To some extent, that is probably just because variety itself is interesting. Beyond that, people may react to the bright colors that typically signal important and biologically useful phytochemicals. While people have long known the value of vegetables, more recent research has confirmed that brightly colored fruits and vegetables often contain substances that help prevent cancer among other benefits.
A salad is more interesting, at least to me, when there is a variety of textures as well as colors and tastes. A carrot, cucumber, tomato, lettuce and snap peas all have quite different textures and this adds to the pleasure of the salad. So, when I “create” a salad, I take care to include a variety of textures as well as colors and tastes. The only substances which are “measured” are the olive oil and vinegar. I do not need to follow a strict recipe regarding the vegetables. Since I typically shop and prepare food only for two people, I need to “use up” ingredients while they are still fresh. Indeed, the choice is even more complicated. I know from experience approximately how long various vegetables will still be fresh and so choose, not just the very freshest, but also vegetables that are fresh today but may not be so tomorrow. Parametric recipes, when appropriate, prevent boredom, are economical and healthy.
Salads are not the only example of a “parametric recipe.” I also use such a scheme for making an omelet. My omelet always contains eggs and cheese but could include any number of a host of other vegetables. There are “constraints” on the vegetables. I would not typically make an omelet with only hot peppers, onions, and garlic for example, because it would be too hot for my taste. I use a variety for color and texture, but to a large extent, the omelets I make are never the same twice. I also use a variety of cheeses. I suppose if I had access to numerous types of eggs, I could also vary the egg type but I do not do that in practice. Other common “parametric recipes include stews, soups, fried rice, beans and greens, curried vegetables, baked potato with vegetable/cheese toppings, burritos, tacos, fruit salads, bean salads, and pizza. To be sure, some parts of these “recipes” are more parametric than others. The pizza dough must be prepared according to much stricter “rules” than the selection and proportion of toppings.
Needless to say, many recipes require very strict adherence. Many recipes for baking must be followed closely in terms of ingredients, proportions, and the steps taken in preparation. Even more vitally, you do not want your pharmacist improvising in compounding your prescriptions. In other words, there are cases where parametric recipes are extremely useful and practical. There are other situations where strict adherence to recipes is better. And, there are many situations where certain aspects of the recipe require strict adherence while other aspects of the same recipe can be varied quite a bit. When you use a parametric recipe, some attention is required along the way. Simply adding different vegetables to an omelet or salad will always add variety, but for best results, you need to think about what you are adding in order to optimize color, texture, etc. as well as individual tastes. While my wife and I both love kale, collard greens, garlic, onions, and cilantro, for example, I know that not everyone likes these ingredients so when making an omelet for a guest, I enquire about the vegetables and cheeses that are incorporated.
OK. So what does the culinary conundrum of “parametric recipes” have to do with American Democracy?
Anarchy is much like grabbing a handful of ingredients that are closest at hand and simply throwing them in a pot and cooking them for a random period of time. There is no structure and there is no learning from best practices and there is no accountability. On the other hand, fascism is like finding one recipe you like, if you are the one in power, and insisting that everyone like it because you like it. Imagine you were a guest in my house and I insisted you eat my blue cheese and shiitake mushroom omelet even though you hated blue cheese and hated mushrooms. I could say, “Well it’s my house! Eat what I make!” Some people were pretty much brought up that way. At the other extreme, some parents will end up making four omelets for four different people because they want to please everyone. With infinite time and resources, this may not be a horrible way to go. But most people are limited both with respect to time and with respect to resources so when it comes to making an omelet for four very different people some compromise may be necessary. Indeed, in some cases, omelets may not be the best option.
The problem with a purely fascist approach is not simply that it is mean and mean spirited. It is worse than that. First of all, if you never get the omelet you want (or indeed any omelet you can even stomach) eventually, you are going to try to “overthrow” the damned chef and make your own omelet. You might not like omelets at all and prefer cereal for breakfast. In “normal” American Democracy, that’s fine. I can make an omelet for myself and you can have cereal. But if I have forced you to eat omelets for a year even though you hate them, you can bet that once you’re in power, you’ll be forcing me to eat your ridiculous cereal for at least a year. Fascism leads to power grabs and ultimately to violence.
The second problem with fascism is that only a very few people in power are really happy with the results. I force my “optimal recipe” omelet on everyone all the time and more and more people get sick of it over time. The person in power, I suppose, gets some kind of pleasure from “forcing” their will on everyone else, but it is nothing compared with the pleasure that normal people get from creating something that “works” for all the people involved. Fascism is not about love, cooperation, or pleasure. It feeds on fear, hate, and meanness. It doesn’t really matter whether the fascism has some quasi-religious affiliation (like the Taliban who outlaw music and trees) or some racial bias like Hitler’s Germany. Such a regime is not conducive to people’s pleasure.
Third, fascism is ultimately not very practical. At first, it might seem “efficient.” Someone in power gets the “best” recipe for an omelet and then everyone has to fall in line and eat that kind of omelet whether or not it tastes good. If the omelet calls only for asparagus as the vegetable, then the entire supply chain can be geared toward asparagus. Efficient! But only under extremely limited circumstances. Suppose that the lack of crop rotation and variety helps cause an asparagus mold plague. Asparagus first becomes very expensive and then non-existent. Or, suppose a foreign agent, knowing everyone has to eat asparagus, finds a way to poison the supply chain. Now, instead of only a few people dying from the poison, everyone will. Or, suppose science discovers that asparagus actually causes kidney stones. Even worse, fascism hates change. In order to prevent change, fascism hates news, science, opinion variety, free speech etc. So, under fascism, when science discovers that the state-approved asparagus is actually poisonous or causes kidney stones, rather than changing the omelet recipe, fascism imprisons the scientist who discovered the problem and tortures him or her until then recant their findings. Problem solved! Recipe unchanged! Efficient! But meanwhile, people are dying from being required to use the recipe.
If everyone is an island unto themselves, there would be no information sharing and people would have to come up with their own omelet recipes. Instead, imagine a world in which people trade recipes informally, are free to discuss, restaurants introduce people to a variety of tastes, people write, publish and read cook books. In that world, people are free to improvise, experiment, find what works, share the information, cater to the situation of what’s available, cater to their specific guests, and so on. All this culinary activity is carried out in a very broad context of rules that cannot be broken without penalty. You cannot willingly poison your guests with your omelet without going to prison. You cannot even cook in peanut oil when you know your guest is allergic to peanut oil. People are not allowed knowingly to sell you tainted eggs. This is a good system. This is, essentially, American Democracy. We have collectively decided that some rules are necessary. (Don’t poison people). But we don’t demand that everyone use the same recipe. We don’t demand that everyone eat the same food. We do not try to enforce our preferences on other people, even when we have the power to.
To me, the advantages of a Democracy over fascism are so obvious that I never imagined for an instant that we might get rid of Democracy in America in favor of fascism. Until now.
Now, we have elected a mean-spirited egomaniac who wants to tell us what to eat, whose clothing to wear, what facts we’re allowed to pay attention to, who we are allowed to be friends with, who we can have sex with, and who we can marry. Democracy is not yet dead, but it is already severely wounded. The Clown has limited powers so long as Congress has the guts to limit the powers of the Clown. So far, they haven’t. But they can. We all need to learn which people in Congress are “ours” and make sure they reign in the Clown immediately. Anyone who fails to do that needs to be voted out as soon as possible and never elected to any public office ever again. Even if you agree with some of the Clown’s executive orders, you have to understand that without a Congress willing to check the Clown, the Clown becomes the Dictator. The Clown has already surrounded himself with people who are chosen because he believes they will enhance his power completely irrespective of whether they have the slightest experience or ability to do the job. You must do what you can to make your Congress accountable to you. If you let the Congress be accountable only to the Clown, then you are dooming your children and your children’s children to live in a Fascist Circus run by a demented Clown. And, in another four years, you won’t have a say in Congress. And, you will be required to eat the omelet made with rancid cheese, moldy asparagus, and bad eggs. Every morning. Forever.
(The story above and many cousins like it are compiled now in a book available on Amazon: Tales from an American Childhood: Recollection and Revelation. I recount early experiences and then related them to contemporary issues and challenges in society).