The mounting rumours that the noted linguist James D. McCawley has written an annotated translation of a Japanese cookbook on oriental cuisine have proven to be well founded. A usually consistent informant has brought it to our attention that a major American publisher is preparing the final galleys, and the author’s students and friends are already hailing it as an “underground classic”.
The layman will find much that is new and provocative in this book
Although Noam Chomsky has never commented on the subject directly, he does make an oblique reference to McCawley’s theory in his recent article “The Responsibility of Dieticians” (New York Review of Books, Feb 1978, soon to be anthologized in his forthcoming collection Let Them Eat Cake). Briefly, he makes the following points:
There is nothing in McCawley’s book that is necessarily peculiar to Chinese cooking. Not only does it not narrow down the class of oriental recipes, it does not even delimit the class of possible human cuisine.
Many of McCawley’s recipes are simply incorrect. Chomsky does not discuss these himself but cites the thesis by Bob Fiengo on Spanish Cooking, “Spanish Gourmet Delights,” soon to be published by Glouton in the Hague Series Flavor, which goes into them in detail.
Finally, McCawley’s theoretical insights are in many respects mere notational variants of Chomsky’s own theory set forth over 2 decades ago. A concise summary of this theory can be found in his review of Mitbachi, Tapuchi and Milafefon, “Traditional Jewish Holiday Recipes” which appeared in the Holy Cross Quarterly, 1956.
A potentially strong challenge is building up in still another quarter. Logicians, never before much interested in home cooking, have now begun to challenge McCawley’s basic distinction between ordinary home cooking and gourmet cuisine. “Tarski’s view that taste should be the fundamental concept in food preparation (see Tarski’s “The Concept of Taste in Gourmet Cooking” in the Journal de l’Association des Chefs et Gourmets, 1937) is as valid for the food you eat in railroad trains as it is in the best four star restaurants,” Princeton philosopher David Lewis told us at Florence’s Diner.
Linguists have voiced objections from other perspectives. J. R. “Haj” Ross of MIT told us that while he found many aspects of McCawley’s book “provocative and stimulating”, he was very unsure about the data base on which it was built. “There’s just no such thing as a well-
Professor William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania, reached at dinner at the Inner City Cafe, a well-
C. F. Hockett was particularly disdainful. He had not been aware of McCawley’s work but said nonetheless that he doubted that any generative system could capture such an individual and highly variable art in a set of dry tasteless rules: “I think that when all this current faddish furor dies down it will be apparent that the best book on the subject remains Edward Sapir’s Recipes from the Orient, and personally, I think that that epochal work will not be surpassed for a long time to come.”
George Lakoff could not be reached for comment, but his secretary told us that “George isn’t into food anymore.”