Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Polyglotism of a Chef

If you truly want to be a great chef, you are going to have to be really good at picking up languages and cookbooks in those languages.

This is both insanely difficult and yet not as hard as you think.

Arabic and Japanese are fairly difficult languages particularly for people trained in the Indo-European tradition. (The same goes in reverse. No chauvinism is either intended or even entertained.) And learning a language is hard no matter what since it takes time and energy both of which are in finite supply.

There's a silver lining though. Cooking is a fairly narrow and technical subject and it's easy to master narrow and technical matter in almost any language given a little aptitude, a ton of work, and the usual panoply of modern-day tools.

The payoff is stupendous beyond belief.

Let's first talk about the two adjectives stated above — narrow and technical.

Cooking is narrow because we do not need to understand the full massive vocabulary of a language that pertains to all the various kinds of situations we could ever possibly encounter in our lives. We only need to know the names of food items and instruments (nouns), how much of the food (cardinal or weight measurements), what things to do to the food (verbs) and how long to do it to them (time measurements).

This is a very narrow amount of vocabulary.

You are not being asked to master linguistic flourishes, idiomatic phrases, or cultural complexity just a very straightforward act of doing things to other things in so much size for so much length of time with prescribed patterns that are insanely repetitive. (Any good cook with a solid knowledge of the grammar of a culture is surely bored silly with reading a recipe book. You read the ingredients not the recipe! The CC can scan almost any recipe is less than ten seconds unless it is suitably complex which happens increasingly less often as time goes by).

Technical refers to the fact that the basics of cooking are (mostly) the same in any language. Just learn the verbs and a few oddball quirks of verbs — do they take direct objects or not, some dative and genitive cases, the conditional constructions ("if, when") — and you're pretty much there.

There are not a lot of verbs because there is not a whole lot you can do. About 30 verbs gets you 90% of the way there and surely you can manage to memorize all the forms in any language which should be around 125-ish (if that). Also, you are not being asked to conjugate the verbs in all their complexity just read them. The CC is pretty sure that he would be hard-pressed to conjugate "bake" in multiple languages but he damn sure can read the recipe which, as sure as sunshine, calls for some "baking". (Comprehension is not the same thing as fluency.)

Technical also refers to the fact that a recipe written in Japanese follows the absolute same rock-solid pattern as one written in Italian. The structure of the format is perfectly predictable. It follows a very strict pattern of logic — ingredients followed by process (with the rare exception of notes for complicated stuff or variants to be made.) In addition, the process always consists of verbs in the imperative mood. ("Do X. Take Y. Mix P with Q. Bake for N minutes.").

There is very little linguistic legerdemain. ("If only X had procured P from Q, and had Y not intervened then Z might have been able to bring A to B's office for a tête-à-tête").

Nope, never happens in a cookbook. Not in the recipe section anyway. That's strictly for the gossip column or the pseudo-literary bullshit that accompanies a cookbook.

Which brings us to the payoff.

The payoff is that you can read cookbooks that are vastly more complex than those that show up in translation in English, or that are historical in nature of which there will never be an English translation. The best cookbooks have always been written for natives and while it is increasingly true that these "best" cookbooks nearly always have an English translation, this is by no means a law of nature. It's a commercial decision and these things have a tendency to drift towards the capriciousness of both editors and the market.

The Internet additionally opens you up to recipes written in all the languages in the world. There are blogs on just about any culture but you will need to be able to read it at least roughly. (The automated translators are a little "iffy" even at this point.)

All of this depends naturally on your level of commitment to the culinary arts and to languages as a whole and there may be a natural tendency to think, "Why do it? The CC is there to translate." to which the CC only can say, "You have no idea of how little makes its way to the blog."

So push your culinary linguistic boundaries outwards and watch your culinary skills strengthen!

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