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August 11th 2013 print

John Reid

The ascent of flan

Charles Darwin first recognised natural selection on a visit to the Galapagos. That insight might have been achieved with greater comfort and less travel had he paid closer attention to the family kitchen


My wife is a good cook but one of the intuitive, never-measure-anything, kind. To her the term kitchen scales suggests some sort of musical exercise. Consequently, from time to time, she has monumental failures. These are admittedly rare but all the more memorable in tending to occur when we have guests. (Is it the sudden change in quantities that she can’t handle?).


There is an upside to this. I call it “recipe drift”. Over time recipes change slowly in a quasi-random manner which generates a combined sense of apprehension and delicious expectation when a half-forgotten dish is being resurrected. Even in common dishes, a slow creep in style is discernible and it is this which has lead me to postulate a mechanism by which new recipes come into existence.

Only the other day, the creep in her Anzacs had become particularly noticeable to the point where they had become, in effect, proto-rock-cakes. The time when her Anzacs were a tough, Aussie variety of brandy snaps (sans filling) is still within living memory so I have no doubt in my own mind that there has been a distinct shift in this particular species. The proto-rock-cakes bear very little resemblance to the brandy-snaps (sans filling) of old. A new recipe has come into existence.

I realized, this must be how all recipes come into existence. Things flop around in this quasi-random sort of way and then, one day, a variation crops up which is head and shoulders above the rest. What did you do that made it so nice, the husband asks and writes it down so that, hopefully, it can be repeated on some future occasion. A new recipe is born. Survival of the nicest.

It was a moment of epiphany for me, I must say. Not a blinding flash of light but an epiphany nonetheless, comparable to the time when, aged five, the kid next door explained to me about Santa Claus. I had been puzzled about the number of chimneys visited and so on. It’s only for the little kids, he assured me. As for Piggy in Lord of the Flies, the world became a sensible and coherent place.

Of course there are details still needing resolution. How did the first recipe get started, i.e. how did that first jump to more than one ingredient occur? I propose accident – maybe some guy dropped his fillet of mammoth on the ground when crossing a salt pan, say.

Whatever it was, once it had happened things just took off. Suddenly there was a Burgess Shale of crazy first-time recipes – honey and locusts, chocolate ants, that sort of thing. Some of these things turned out to be unpalatable or unhealthy and soon disappeared from the Paleolithic kitchen. Nevertheless there are some ancient forms which obviously go way back. Irish stew is a good example. I have purchased Irish stew from a street stall in Southern Turkey. Surely such a large geographic range is testament to its early origins.

Of course there will be those who question my theory; those who will say modern recipes were all pre-ordained by some celestial Gordon Ramsey. Others will question whether there has been sufficient time for recipes as complex as tiramisu to have been arrived at by any natural process. I confess there have been times, while consuming this dish, when even I have suspected the intervention of a Divine Hand.

But no, I will stick to my guns. Here we have a theory which explains the data in an economical way without any unnecessary special pleading.

It is a good example of Occam’s Paring Knife.

John Reid is a mendicant physicist who lives in rural obscurity near Cygnet, Tasmania.