Culture Food Learning Technology

The mindset of innovation

Liked Better eats – Works in Progress by Nick Whitaker (

The kitchen of 2020 looks mostly the same as that of 1960. But what we do in it has changed dramatically, almost entirely for the better—due to a culture of culinary innovation.

The change has come in the form of things we cannot touch or feel, but nevertheless matter: new ideas, recipes, and techniques. And that tells an equally important story: of how intangible capital has grown in importance in our lives and the wider economy — a less visible, but just as valuable, form of technological advancement as the advancements in tangible capital we made in the half-century before.

Ooh I like this framework. It’s not just the physical technology that matters, but how people use it and what they use it for.

The central thesis of Anton Howes’s Arts and Minds, a history of the Royal Society of Arts, is that the Industrial Revolution was driven by a new “ideology of innovation.” This ideology held that everything could be improved by careful tinkering and experimentation. And this ideology spread from person to person. People become more inclined to experiment when they see others doing it and succeeding.

It’s interesting to contrast the movement of advancement in cooking with the recent reports of stagnation in scientific progress and the boringization of culture. How can this mindset from the realm of the home cook expand to other disciples?

Can the internet create non-geographic scenius? How can personal websites fit in? They certainly played a part in the democratization of experimentation in home cooking and baking — there are untold thousands of cooking blogs, often with a rich transfer of knowledge in the comments sections. I think also of the fractures in science writing that newsletters are sparking — there is a place for expertise, but there’s also a role for thoughtful non-experts in questioning and thinking.

It’s not that these techniques have no antecedent in the home either. Rather, their popularity demonstrates that categorizing and naming is a technology in and of itself. Categories and names allow us to connect ideas and techniques into an easy-to-remember bundle.

I never considered it in these terms before but evolutions in classification totally align with advances in thinking. The development of taxonomy drove Darwin and others to dig more deeply into what the actual heck barnacles are. Without the concept of vitamins, scientists couldn’t pinpoint what prevented scurvy — and a misunderstanding of the difference between limes and lemons led to a resurgence of it 😳

I love the concept of a meta recipe — I have two cookbooks designed on this premise, as well as a “flavor dictionary” that lets me invent dishes that will probably be successful, at least flavor -wise 😉

We’ve built up a vast array of knowledge and technique well tailored to the home, ranging across cuisines, styles, and goals. It’s what Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake call intangible capital, all the stuff in the production process we don’t see: our systems, our software, our skills, our techniques. We can’t touch this intangible capital, so it’s easy to underrate. But a new method for making bread overnight can be just as useful as a new machine that does it.

This supports my recent interest in thinking about, learning about, and sharing processes.

Online videos are another cornerstone of this knowledge base. They are particularly good at conveying technique, not just in traditional terms (like knife skills) but also how a cook can prep and clean efficiently. It’s what Michael Polyanyi termed “tacit knowledge.” Many cooking methods can’t easily be easily conveyed in writing and used to have to be transmitted person to person, in culinary apprenticeships or within families. But with video at scale, the best of them can be transmitted to anyone and preserved indefinitely.

Truly, video itself is a technological advancement in cooking, even if it’s not installed in the kitchen.

I appreciated this perspective into the benefits of the food science movement because I think a lot of people put too much emphasis on precise ingredient quantities, when really it’s the process that’s most important.

The example he gives of “cut vegetables into sizes based on how long they’ll take to cook” stands out as my preference, but also as an instruction that does require a basis of knowledge that video can help supply. It’s a form of higher level content, assuming quite a bit of shared knowledge: sometimes I do want explicit instructions, but often I just want a direction to point, or a ratio or baking temperature. This reminds me of a dichotomy I really enjoyed in Naomi Novik’s Uprooted: the wizard is meticulous about following and documenting spells, whereas the witch describes her spellcasting akin to gleaning, where you’d describe the rough route to another gleaner but they’ll find their own exact path.

Improvisation is as much a mindset as it is a skillset. While some of what I needed to learn to play solos in jazz band was technical — what notes a chord represents and the common patterns of chord progressions — a lot was learning to be comfortable experimenting in front of others. Developing a personal style meant both learning from others by listening to a ton of jazz and practicing soloing as much as possible.

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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