The best and worst dressed A-Listers. The Golden Globe and the Golden Raspberry. The fabulous Bad Science column in the Guardian vs. the Nobel and IgNobel Prizes. The good vs. the bad and the ugly. And the lists go on. As consumers, voyeurs, self-styled experts and just plain human beings in a media world, we seem to be obsessed with extremes. Or when was the last time you praised something as 'wonderfully mediocre'?
Much more than the fact of 'best' and 'worst' lists and their popularity, I am intrigued by the emotions they elicit. In the first instance, there is admiration of the beautiful and disgust or displeasure at the sight of the ugly. But then it gets twisted: we scrutinise the beautiful for flaws and points to criticise, to the point where 'too perfect' becomes the worst property, and the muttering of 'photoshopped' a redeeming feature for someone - even if we are not sure who we are trying to compliment (or shoot down even more) by pointing to digital Frankensteinianism. On the other hand, ugly things are praised for their uniqueness; 'interesting' is used in a positive fashion; and, in the case of talkies, 'it's so bad it's good' (for a laugh) makes a bad flick better than a boring one.
Sitting over a completely self-inflicted mediocre cup of coffee this morning, I started thinking about food and history along these lines. Come along for a few thought bites, if you like - you might want to bring a napkin.
To alchemists, the best recipe was one that worked, and the best product one that did what it said on the, um, cover. Alchemical texts had a resilience to vanishing from sight, because they were supposed to work by default: if they did not work out, it was the alchemist's fault for misinterpreting the recipe or not having the right equipment, skills or brains to make it work. Nevertheless, the canon of the most popular recipes changed with the times, with some classics topping the charts for many centuries. I'll return to this point in a minute. Overall, though, alchemists strove for perfection and were always keen to find the best advice, equipment and ingredients for their trade. They discovered what worked along the way, and made experiences of the character-building kind, too. They were not perfect, but not hapless, either. Something many home cooks can sympathise with.
Early historians of chemistry, for whom alchemy was one big burnt piece of toast best forgotten, focused on colourful tales of botched alchemical experiments and anecdotes about foolish men who believed they could turn lead into gold. What makes failure so much more delicious in hindsight is the assumption that progress equals improvement, that today's attitudes are more sensible than yesterday's, and that (and this is the crucial point) those who have gone before us could have seen what we see if they'd only looked more thoroughly. Would alchemical recipes win Michelin stars in the chemist's kitchen? Of course not. Like anything, the story of alchemy is made up of the successes, the failures and the vast amount of everyday dishwashing in between. Thank goodness the history of alchemy has reached a point where we know a little about the success stories already; are curious about the failures from a historically more balanced point of view; and have the luxury to write about everyday practices, too.
The Observer recently published a list of the 50 best cookbooks. And what a joy it was to read! More intriguing, however, was a discussion of why we buy cookbooks (for reading rather than cooking, or at least with best intentions to do the latter but ending up doing the former) and a few anecdotes about recipes published with typos or botched measurements which no one ever put into practice. Which made me wonder: are there lists of the worst cookbooks? A little later, the Guardian delivered an answer in the form of reviews of bad cookbooks. Fair enough. But like their alchemical predecessors, canonical recipe books remain popular for long periods of time. The written word here, too, has a life of its own.
What about good or bad food, though? We all fancy ourselves food critics these days and think we can do it better; yet parents notoriously think their children's grubby biscuits are the most delicious thing in the world (which reminds me of a story my mother told me: when she was a child, the neighbour's daughter would come over to make cake sometimes, and enjoy kneading the pastry dough so much that she reduced it to a grey ball of unshapely better-not-ask-what-it-is. Even my eight-year-old mother was revolted. Maybe this trait runs in the family?). I am not sure what the moral is. But being a wannabe know-it-all, a Foodie With A Capital F or Gourmet (with fancy French undertones) can spoil meals just as much as throwing health and safety overboard to please your offspring. Nuff said.
Cooking for one (as in 'oneself') day in, day out, I am my own best, worst and can't-be-arsed chef, food critic and dishwasher. And in this case, the worst food is that which is not properly anticipated. It's worth getting really, really hungry before tucking into cheese and toast to make the ditto and ditto the most delicious meal in the world. Of course, I am reading a recipe book as I eat. Munching into the sunset.
Ok, who am I kidding? I am not a figure in a romantic novel involving food instead of men. I am opinionated. Yes, indeed. And when I heard about the supposedly low-cal version of Twix being released on the market, I ranted to everyone around or at a monitor near me. The idea of this new product is to replace the delicious buttery biscuity bit with a curly wafer, which is topped with the caramel and dipped into the chocolate as we know it. I have a thing about low-cal inventions, and no, please don't get me started.
In a sudden bout of aspiring self-improvement and experimentalism (motto: don't bad-mouth it before you've had it in your mouth) I was tempted into buying one of those Twix Fino bars and giving it a go. Dear reader, what can I say? I really wanted to like it, to prove myself wrong and mend my karma. But it just does not work. The caramel overwhelms when not balanced with a proper biscuit, the wafer is sickly and pointless, producing a pathetic crunch opposite the caramel's munchiness, the combination with milk chocolate is just too sweet, and the low-cal message (wrapped into a slinky steel-coloured wrapper the whole thing is, too) too deafening to ignore. Save yourselves and your money. Rather, go get some flour and eggs for the kids so they can make something equally disgusting at home. You know what? It might even be better...