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Other Writings and Recipes

Toward a Personal Taxonomy of Food

Vidhi Dattani

To archive recipes for a cookbook, you must subscribe to a specific taxonomy of food. Any distinction beyond “poisonous” and “edible” would reflect your assumptions about how people decide what to cook and eat. You might divide ingredients by the seasons, or separate dishes neatly by course or occasion. Or you may dismiss such organizational concerns as trivial considerations next to the essential tasks of creating and writing recipes. But it is these very considerations that have me stuck in my writing tracks.

I wonder, for example, if steak that is piled high with fresh greens, is a salad or “main.” Is pickled celery a snack or a side dish to grilled pork? What if I serve it warm over grains? If I pair the celery with aged cheddar and a bottle of wine, can I call the set up dinner?

To answer this, I looked to my cookbook collection and on the web for existing taxonomies of food. I found groupings of beans by region, sandwiches by type of bread, flavors by molecular structure, peppers by color, and dairy products by spoilage and toxicity. There are recipes organized by time, of course, which never reflect variances in skill, much less account for inevitable distractions that come with making meals at home.

Here is why questions of categorization raise concerns: when things like mood, appetite, or circumstance drive a meal, even distinctions between “soup” and “salad” move us very little toward something appropriate to eat.

Below, I’ve come up with my own food taxonomy, based not on ingredient, dish, or occasion, but on Personal Need. I can’t say a cookbook editor would be convinced of its merit. Still, it is a worthy exercise in honesty about what guides us when we walk into our kitchens to make something to eat.

Purple Kale Kitchenworks’ Working Taxonomy of Food

Dishes I Can Cook in Seven Minutes.
Items I Can Cart Along to the Train.
What I am Willing to Eat Every Day if I Have To.
Things I Can Rely on to Fill Me Up.
What My Kids Won’t Complain About.
Food to Eat When I’m Tired of Chicken.