Perfection Salad

Perfection Salad

This is about the harm done by ideologically-distorted concepts of rationality. I wrote it in 1988. My main example came from nutrition. However, the actual subject, by satirical analogy, was cognitive “science,” which I discussed only briefly at the end. Cognitive science was doubly distorted by rationality: it pretended to be rational itself, and also modeled people as rational in ways they aren’t.

I find little to disagree with now, so I’m republishing the text here unaltered. However, I’m following it up with a newly-written page discussing the growing public realization that nutrition “science” has failed catastrophically.


This is an essay about scientism:1 the special social power given to people and discourses that cast themselves as “scientific.” It examines a particular case, “domestic science,” which is now plainly bogus. Thereby it tries to illuminate, and to cast as bogus, other cases (such as “cognitive science”) currently accepted as legitimate.

My theoretical framework here relies heavily on Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality. This book is better titled in the French edition: The Will to Knowledge. It takes sex as a concrete example, but is actually concerned with the relationship between knowledge and power.

My concrete example is drawn from Laura Shapiro’s Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century. Shapiro’s book is a history of the “domestic science” movement. Domestic science was founded in the late nineteenth century as, simultaneously, an intellectual discipline and a reform movement, both directed at the improvement of cooking. In its later manifestation as “home economics,” it had an overwhelming effect on women’s lives that has abated only partly in the last twenty years.2

Domestic science provides a neat illustration for the pathologies of intellectualized rationality, authoritative knowledge, and transcendence. Here at the end of the twentieth century, it seems mostly absurd to think that science has anything much to say about cooking,3 and we thus have a degree of distance on a particular manifestation of a group of connected twistednesses that still dominate the way we think about most things.

Authoritative Recipes

Domestic science, like everything that calls itself a “science”, presented itself as a field of intellectual endeavor. Intellectual fields are supposed ideally to be “detached.” However, the domestic scientists primarily pursued a practical project: reforming the way Americans cooked. To this end, they amassed vast power, as was inevitably necessary to radically change the lives of tens of millions of people. They pursued a particular route to this power, one which has become extremely important in contemporary society: the validation of discourse.

We are accustomed to thinking of power inhering in institutions and political roles. In fact, as Foucault first pointed out, most power in the modern world lies in discourse: in the control of knowledge. However, these sorts of power are synergistic, and the domestic scientists were able to accumulate considerable institutional power:

Then they quickly assembled all the appurtenances necessary to a full-fledged profession: syllabi for course work at every level, degree-granting programs of study, a professional organization, a journal, and annual meetings. … they could now join forces with institutions that might help them solidify their position. Home economics easily won a place in industry, education, and government… and the arrangement satisfied everyone concerned. (pp. 7–8)4

This institutional power, however, was useful not so much because it gave domestic scientists the ability to directly control other people’s actions, but because it validated and gave authority to their discourse.

Knowledge is power only when it is accepted as authoritative. A discourse is validated as authoritative when it is established that any of a class of questions is to be answered in terms of that discourse. In this case, domestic science established itself as the discourse in terms of which any serious question about food would have to be answered. The process of establishing institutional validation for a body of discourse is a crucial part of assembling power-through-control-of-knowledge. We can see it happening all around us now; it is clearly visible, for example, in the extraordinary political success of connectionism, whose modus operandi is neatly described by the paragraph quoted above.

Once a group has established their knowledge as authoritative, anyone who has direct power is forced to consult them, if only as an ass-covering maneuver.

Domestic scientists were being sought not only as teachers but as experts, and in the field of institutional feeding their participation became especially prominent. Many were invited to examine the diets of hospital patients, prisoners, asylum inmates, college students, and other groups subjected to quantity cooking on a small budget, and to make recommendations for improving the nutritional quality of food at the lowest cost. After their disillusioning experience with the mass of poor and working people [who insisted on eating food that tasted good], Mrs. Richards and her colleagues welcomed the opportunity to work with these more captive populations. (p. 161)

Much of the rest of my essay is concerned with just how the validation of domestic science was achieved. What about a body of discourse makes it easy to render authoritative? In our culture, the best strategy is to cast the discourse as a “Science.” This strategy has been followed, with varying degrees of success, by Domestic Science, Library Science, Astrological Science, Materials Science, Agricultural Science, Political Science, Sanitation Science, Dental Science, Management Science, and Cognitive Science. The strategy involves smearing a particular sort of rhetoric over the subject matter and the performance of a variety of meaningless but culturally valorized rituals involving the invocation of such deities as “precision” and “repeatability,” scientific-looking tools, and the use of numbers whenever possible. The goal is to make the actual practices of the group resemble those of physicists as nearly as possible.

Scientific Food

At the time domestic science was at its height only two things were actually known about food: that different foods had different energy densities (measurable in calories per ounce) and that food was made up of varying proportions of protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Nothing more would be learned until the discovery of the vitamins two decades later. This did not stop domestic scientists from proposing that every housewife be taught considerable amounts of any science that seemed potentially relevant, including, for example, psychology, physiology, bacteriology, and chemistry (p. 65).

If the housekeeper could be made to think of herself as a scientist, calmly at work over the beakers and burners in her laboratory, then every meal would emerge as she planned, pristine and invariable. (p. 86)

Science genuinely relevant to food had yet to be invented. So domestic scientists applied irrelevant science, and prescribed scientific-seeming rituals to be adhered to when cooking. For instance, a science is supposed to involve experiments, and demands that these experiments be repeatable. The rhetoric of domestic science equates cooking with laboratory experimentation:

…an enthusiastic social reformer in the domestic-science movement complained … that “even the intelligent housekeeper still talks about ‘luck with her sponge cake.’ Luck! There is no such word in science, and to make sponge cake is a scientific process!” (p. 86)

One of the hallmarks of science is measuring things.

Exact measurement was the foundation for everything else that happened in the scientific kitchen, although there was not always agreement about how to reach exactitude. (p. 115)

Domestic science invented standardized measures for food in the 1880s. The cup was standardized as a half-pint at this point, for instance.

[Fannie] Farmer’s interest in exact measurements went far beyond cups and spoons, however: she liked to specify that strips of pimento used for decoration be cut three-quarters of an inch long and half an inch wide, and she could measure out spices by the grain. (p. 116)

Other things that could be measured were all the basic chemical properties of food. Energy density is still considered relevant, but very few of the others are; except in a few extreme cases, the pH of foods is irrelevant. However,

“Chemical analysis should be the guide for the cookery book,” she urged, and looked forward gladly to the day when a laboratory microscope would be standard equipment in every kitchen. (p. 130)

Some domestic scientists advocated that every kitchen include complete equipment for quantitative chemical analysis.

Science is big on charts and graphs, and domestic scientists rose to the challenge. Shapiro shows, for instance, a “Cupcake chart” with a huge matrix of numerical entries, and describes a “meal chart” in which

…protein, carbohydrate, and fat were distributed with an exactitude that demanded kitchen scales, a ruler, and some arithmetic. Atop two rolls, for example (combined weight, two ounces; cost, two cents; percent protein .170; calories, 163), the man was permitted to spread a one-inch cube of butter (weight, one ounce; cost, two and a quarter cents; percent protein, none; calories, 224)… What eluded her scrutiny, however, was the nature of the food itself. To balance a meal by numbers alone, ignoring taste and texture, meant that creamed potatoes, creamed vegetable soup, macaroni with cream sauce, salad with creamy dressing, and gelatin with cream were all listed on the menu for Day Two, along with stewed prunes, stewed corn, and stewed tomatoes. (p. 209)

Perhaps the ultimate manifestation of this was the “Dietary Computer” (no kidding) invented by Ellen Swallow Richards, who was the first woman graduate of and first woman instructor at (of course!) MIT.5

Ellen Swallow Richards
Ellen Swallow Richards

Meal plans were justified in terms of the process of digestion, or rather the process as it was understood.

The meal began with a clear soup, which Mrs. Rorer planned specifically for its lack of nutritive properties. The stomach was supposed to simply rest on the soup, gathering strength, as she explained it, “before the heavy work of digesting a spare rib.” Applesauce accompanied the spare rib, the acid countering the fat, according to rule… (p. 80)

…the chewing required by salted almonds would increase the circulation of blood. In this way a good supply of blood would be furnished to the stomach… (p. 81)

What I find most interesting in all this is that the domestic scientists knew that their understanding of nutrition was very incomplete, but they did not hesitate to make prescriptions for action based on them that determined the way Americans ate for more than half a century. What little genuine understanding they had did not support these prescriptions. For instance, they could measure energy density. By itself, though, energy density tells you nothing about how to cook. So they made the arbitrary assumption that more was better, and used as much sugar and fat as possible (p. 76). To this assumption can probably be credited tens of millions of deaths from heart disease.

Many of the variables on which the domestic scientists’ prescriptions were based, such as pH, seem now to us to be irrelevant, and others that we consider central couldn’t be measured and so did not enter into the prescriptions. Since vitamins had not been discovered, domestic scientists were not big on fruits or vegetables, which didn’t have much protein, carbohydrate, or fat in them, and mostly seemed to be water.

Domestic scientists assumed that the ratios of protein, carbohydrate, and fat were relevant variables, and based diet plans on theories of the “correct” ratios. “Nutrition scientists” are still doing this, and so far as I can tell they still don’t know what the “correct” ratios are, because every five years they confidently declare that they have discovered with complete certainty that we should have twenty-three percent or thirty-seven percent or seventeen percent protein in our diets, and American eating habits obediently shift accordingly. Most likely there are no “correct” ratios, because lots of other variables are involved.

Rational Cookery

The cult of science is part of the cult of rationality. By “rationality” here I mean rationality as an intellectualized prescriptive ideal. Ultimately, it is by presenting a discourse as rational that it is validated. Presenting it as scientific is one means to this end. Rationality requires other rhetoric and ritual practices, not strictly scientific, which we can see in operation in domestic science.

Rationality mandates control.

…color-coordinated meals… represented most of all the achievement of an extraordinary degree of control over the messy, unpredictable business of the kitchen. (p. 84)

Rationality demands that practice accord to formal rules.

Rather than learning to consult their instincts, their sense of taste, or their imaginations, fledgling cooks were taught to depend on rules, which existed on a lofty plane far above the pleasures of appetite. (p. 90)

Rationality prescribes certainty.

The extraordinary degree of predictability that was the triumph of mass-produced food had been sought for years by laboratory-based scientific cooks, and its achievement represented the fulfillment of one of the major goals of domestic science: the attainment of certainty. An ever-sturdier sense of finitude, objectivity, and perfect control could now be discerned in recipes and meal plans… (p. 206)

Rationality requires “objectivity,” or distance from the subject matter. The ideal was a “carefully maintained impersonality between the cook and the food” (p. 211). This is accomplished, in part, by abstract representation.

Sometimes, in fact, it was possible for a cooking teacher to strip away so much of what she considered extraneous to the process of cookery that the remainder could be reduced to a chart, itself a stunning acknowledgement of the now frozen distance that separated the cook from the food. (p. 206)

Rationality promotes generalizations, even when these do great violence to the phenomena.

Studying the diets of black tenant farmers in Alabama, then, the investigators noted that women and children often worked in the fields alongside the men, but since there was no way according to the method to take that work into consideration, or to assign nutritional needs to it, they decided for convenience sake to assume that it didn’t exist. (p. 167)

One participant at the fourth Lake Placid conference had taken an informal poll of twenty-two families to find out what they ate, and the results distressed her. Although there was a great deal of repetition in the daily menus within each household, she told her colleagues, the variety from house to house was dizzying. Evidently “local tastes and family idiosyncrasies” still exerted a powerful influence over the dinner table, preventing the development of “conscious standards” in meal planning. … “It is true that all people do not demand the same kind of food. This is due sometimes to acquired appetites, sometimes due to finicalities of appetite due to bad living and sometimes to the fact that people have not enough other interests besides that in eating and drinking.” When people advance to the stage of what she called “rational living” … they would find that “unreasonable preferences for particular foods” disappeared. (pp. 213–214)

Observing the meticulous rituals of rationality is the high road to status in our culture.

… these [completely bogus] dietary investigations helped boost domestic scientists to a new height of self-respect. The clean and precise task of gathering information for scientific analysis could not possibly be confused with cooking, much less eating, and the institutional backing of the federal government gave the work an orderliness and a magnitude that surpassed their most ambitious reveries. To have acknowledged individual quirks like pregnancy or child labor would only have interrupted the smooth operation of the intellectual machinery, and dragged down the whole process into a slough of those idiosyncratic emotional responses traditionally called female. (p. 167)

Rationality worship is central to many, perhaps most, of the twistednesses of our culture. I should like to say a lot more about this here, but the topic is too large. I think you can imagine that if we analyzed most other parts of contemporary culture we would find them shot through with the same disease we find here in cooking. I would very much like to study the way in which rationality worship, a form of institutionalized insanity, gives rise to both individual and group twistedness.

Transcending Physicality

No matter how modern, civilized, rational, and scientific we are, some activities remind us that we have somehow failed to escape being animals; bodies; physical objects. Eating is one. Thus, we eat in ritualized ways that try to deny, as much as possible, that it is a necessary bodily process. The bestiality of eating is enhanced by the fact that what we eat is other living things. I occasionally suddenly realize that the thing I am putting in my mouth is a part cut out of the sexual organ of a plant which sat around outdoors, rested on earth, got rained on, had bugs wander over it, and pumped sap around inside itself, and am momentarily horrified and disgusted. One of the great goals, and eventually triumphant successes, of domestic science was to disguise the bodily nature of food.

Most authorities recommended one to three hours’ boiling for string beans, forty-five minutes for asparagus, twenty minutes for cucumbers, half an hour for celery, and up to twelve hours for beets. … Salad greens, which did have to be served raw and crisp, demanded more complicated measures. The object of scientific salad making was to subdue the raw greens until they bore as little resemblance as possible to their natural state. … One cook recommended cutting lettuce leaves into “ribbons of uniform width” for a more orderly arrangement, and the most popular version of a spinach salad required the spinach to be boiled, drained, chopped, molded into little cups, unmolded, and decorated with a neat slice of hardboiled egg. (p. 96)

The physicality of food makes it disagreeable not only to eat but also to cook.

Handling food, she emphasized in a letter in a letter to Atkinson, was “distasteful to women” … [meat in particular] cannot be handled without disgust. (p. 151)

Various devices were invented to avoid the necessity of actually touching food while cooking it: the chafing dish, mechanical bread kneaders, and a device known as the Aladdin Oven, for example.

Food, ideally, ought to be stripped of concrete properties; those properties it retains should be as pure and abstract as possible. This ideal was triumphantly realized in the development of products like Cheez-Whiz and Jell-O, which have no texture, pure primary colors, and no identifiable source in the natural world. Kool-Whip additionally has an elemental flavor, being simply sweet. Crisco, then, is the ultimate food product, having no texture, color, or flavor; a food so abstract it is easy to forget that it is coarsely physical, and to imagine that it resides rather in the realm of Platonic forms, side by side with cylindric algebras and cohomology groups.

This attempt to deny physicality is a central theme in our culture, one closely connected with that of rationality.

Domestic Science is to Food as Cognitive Science is to People

It seems now to us ludicrous that science should have much to say about cooking, yet this was accepted without question in our parents’ generation. It is now accepted without question that science has a great deal to say about “cognition.” And our views of what sort of things we are, and a great many institutional policies, are shaped by what “cognitive scientists” say about us. Cognitive science is twisted by rationality worship twice: as with other sciences, it twists its own methods to conform to rationality’s dictates, but it also reads rationality into its own subject matter, casting people as rational.

To make my analogy explicit, cognitive scientists, like domestic ones, are wont to apply irrelevant branches of science, smear empty mathematics over the phenomena, make absurd generalizations from variables they can measure while neglecting anything they can’t, adopt outward trappings of physicists even when they are inappropriate, constantly engage in meaningless “scientific” rituals, and make confident policy recommendations (e.g. concerning education) based on what they know to be extremely incomplete understandings. As rational beings, they both seek for themselves and impute to their subject matter control, practice according to formal rules, certain knowledge, objectivity, abstract representation, and generalization.

Seeing the absurdity of these practices in domestic science should make cognitive science also look absurd. I think it likely that “cognitive science” will seem as much of an anachronistic oxymoron in thirty years time as “domestic science” does now.

Just as cooking is slowly recovering from domestic science, our understanding of ourselves will slowly recover after cognitive science is discredited.

Epilogue, 2014

It has been more than a quarter century since I wrote that. What progress have we made? Has food recovered from domestic science? Has our understanding of ourselves recovered from cognitive science>? I’ll address those questions elsewhere on this site.

Oh, and if you were wondering about the title, “Perfection Salad” is a bizarre “scientific” dish that would now be unrecognizable as food, but was popular as late as the 1960s. There’s a picture and recipe here.

  1. 1.Nowadays people argue about how “scientism” should be defined, in order to promote their particular ideologies of what counts as rational, and therefore what bodies of knowledge should be granted authoritative social power. That wasn’t true in 1988, or anyway I was unaware of it. In 2014, I’m not interested in arguing about what scientism “really means” or should mean; the covert power-grab in that kind of argument is partly what this essay is about!
  2. 2.I.e. starting around 1968, twenty years before I wrote this.
  3. 3.Alas, a quarter-century later, “science” is still claiming authority over food, with results that have probably been catastrophic. I discuss that in the follow-up.
  4. 4.All page numbers are from the first (1986) edition. I haven’t read the second (2008) one.
  5. 5.Despite my poking fun at her here, she had an impressive career and seems to have been overall a Good Thing.