What the invention of complicated foods tells us about discovery, innovation, and university research funding.
Over lunch earlier this week we got talking about how different foods get discovered — or invented, whichever’s the most appropriate model. The point of the discussion was how unlikely a lot of foods are to have actually been created in the first place.
The lineage of some quite complicated foods is fairly easy to discern, of course. Bread: leave out some wet flour overnight and watch it rise to form sourdough. Do the same for malt and you get beer (actually the kind that of beer that in Flanders is called lambic). Put milk into a barrel, load it onto the back of a donkey and transport it to the next town, and you’ll have naturally-churned butter. It’s fairly easy to see how someone with an interest in food would refine the technique and diversify it, once they knew that the basic operation worked in some way and to some degree.
But for other foods, it’s exactly this initial step that’s so problematic.
I think the best example is meringue. Consider the steps you need to go through to discover that meringues exist. First, you have to separate an egg — which is obvious now, but not so obvious if you don’t know that there’s a point to it. Then you need to beat the white for a long time, in just the right way to introduce air into it. If you get this wrong, or don’t do it for long enough, or do it too enthusiastically (or not enthusiastically enough) you just get slightly whiter egg white: it’s only if you do it properly that you get the phase change you need. Of course you’re probably doing this with a wholly inappropriate instrument — like a spoon — rather than a fork or a balloon whisk (which you don’t have, because nobody knows there are things that need air beating into them yet). Then you need to determine, counter-intuitively, that making the egg white heavier (with sugar) will improve the final result when cooked. Then you have to work out that cooking this liquid — which has actually to be a process of drying, not cooking — is actually quite a good idea despite appearances.
It’s hard enough to make a decent meringue now we know they exist: I find it hard to imagine how one would do it if one didn’t even know they existed, and furthermore didn’t know that beating egg whites in a particular way will generate the phase change from liquid to foam. (Or even know that there are things called “phase changes” at all for that matter.)
Thinking a little harder, I actually can imagine how meringues got invented. In the Middle Ages a lot of very rich aristocrats competed with their peers either by knocking each other off horses at a joust or by exhibiting ever-more-complex dishes at feasts. These dishes — called subtleties — were intended to demonstrate the artistry of the chef and hence the wealth and taste of his patron, the aristocrat. Pies filled with birds, exact scale models of castles, working water-wheels made out of pastry, that kind of thing. In order to do this sort of thing you need both a high degree of cooking skill and a lot of unusual food-based materials to work in. You can find these as part of your normal cooking, but it’s probably also worth some experimentation to find new and unusual effects that will advance this calorific arms race a little in your favour.
So maybe meringue was invented by some medieval cook just doing random things with foodstuffs to see what happens. The time spent on things that don’t work — leaving pork fat outside to see if it ferments into vodka, perhaps? — will be amortised out by the discovery of something that’s really useful in making really state-of-the-art food. Contrary to popular belief the Middle Ages was a time of enormous technological advance, and it’s easy to think of this happening in food too.
So food evolves under the combined effects of random chance operations shaped by survival pressures. Which is exactly what happens in biology. A new combination gets tried by chance, without any anticipation of any particular result, and the combinations that happen to lead to decent outcomes get maintained. At that point the biological analogy breaks down somewhat, because the decent outcomes are then subjected to teleological refinement by intelligent beings — cooks — with a goal in mind. It’s no longer random. But the initial undirected exploration is absolutely essential to the process of discovery.
Bizarrely enough, this tells us something more general about the processes of discovery and innovation. They can’t be goal-directed: or, more precisely, they can’t be goal-directed until we’ve established that there’s a nugget of promise in a particular technique, and that initial discovery will only be performed because of someone’s curiosity and desire to solve a larger problem. “Blue-skies” research is the starting point, and you by definition can’t know — or ever expect to know — what benefits it might confer. You have to kiss an awful lot of frogs to have a reasonable expectation of finding a prince, and blue-skies, curiosity-driven research is the process of identifying these proto-princes amongst the horde of equally unattractive alternatives. But someone’s got to do it.