02 February 2014

"Dear Food Thoughtz:" Potato Metaphysics

Welcome to a very special edition of Dear Food Thoughtz.  This question was submitted by a valued reader over a month ago, but because the question demanded a more rigorous examination than I am capable of, I enlisted the help of my personal metaphysician, Midge Deak (pronounced deek).  Midge is a graduate student in philosophy, specializing in Stoic metaphysics.  She has recently solved the problem of identity and is very fond of buns.  As always, please direct all future inquiries to food.thoughtz@gmail.com.  If you require Midge's profound philosophical insights, please put "Philosophy Alert" or "Philosopher Needed" in the subject line. 

Dear Food Thoughtz,

These potatoes were baked, but are they really "baked potatoes"?

Dear Avid Reader, 

First of all, thank you for writing us and for showing an unprecedented interest in the metaphysics of (baked) potatoes. A wise (post-)hellenistic philosopher once said: "Man cannot live by bread alone." And it seems that you, dear reader, cannot live by the substance of potatoes alone; you are hungry for the Baked Potato, or in all probability, pure and unmixed Bakedness.

In order to establish whether a potato that has been baked is a "baked potato", the entity's potatohood and bakedness both ought to be thoroughly investigated. However, putting my own metaphysical interests aside, I will try to focus on your question instead. Namely, what makes a potato a baked potato? Whether any potato that has been baked is a "baked potato" or does "baked potato"-ness consist in something else than going through a structural transformation in an oven.

The question is especially interesting because we actually know of potato dishes that are prepared with the method of baking, but which are not called a (or several) baked potatoes. Examples of such a kind of a dish are "potato squashers", oven-fried potatoes, stuffed potatoes and potato casseroles such as the delicious Hungarian "rakott krumpli" or the less delicious French "tartiflette". 

In my opinion there are two factors that are crucial in a potato-dish naming process (or dish-naming processes in general). First, the different sources that a potato-dish can acquire its name from: (A) non-potato ingredients, e.g. cheesy potatoes (B) other processes of preparation, e.g. stuffed potatoes, (C) some random fantasy name, e.g. tartiflette. And second, the preferences of the potato-dish-baptist. The Baptist could choose a name based on either A, B or C depending on which characteristic of the potato dish she thinks to be the most relevant. If she thinks that the most essential part of a potato dish is that the dish in question has been stuffed, then she will name it a stuffed potato. She may have made this choice because she thinks that the ingredients constituting the stuffing are either made mostly of potato, or that they are not very interesting, at least not more interesting than the gracious act of stuffing. However, if the Baptist feels that the ancillary ingredients have a more crucial importance in defining the essence of the potato-dish in question than the method of preparation, she will name the potato dish with reference to the process involved in preparation. 

It has to be noted that the name-giving preparatory process also has to be chosen from all the different processes involved in the preparation. Baked potatoes are also often washed and scrubbed beforehand, nevertheless they are not called "washed potatoes" or "scrubbed potatoes" or "washed and scrubbed potatoes", or " washed and scrubbed then baked potatoes" even though this last one would be the most accurate description of the potato dish in question. A similar case can be made for naming based on ingredients. Prima facie, these characteristics of potato-dish-naming processes seem to suggest that the christening of a steaming plateful of solanum tuberosum is governed by the whimsical fancies of fallible humans, who just choose whatever name comes to their mind upon the consideration of the material components of the potato dish and its history. This suspicion is also confirmed by the existence of random fantasy names like tartiflette

Personally, I find this account of potato-dish naming highly unsatisfactory. Although most humans are stupid and easily influenced, with the attention span of a tired mosquito, I find it unbelievable that all human actions are dictated by the music of chance. I would like to believe that humans are the most evolved among all animals, and as such have a keen insight into the true nature of things. They see the very essence of things and conceives of them accordingly. Names given to entities reflect this acumen humans have into the nature of things. They aim to grasp the most essential feature of the entities they apply to. To give an example, oranges are called "oranges", because their most essential feature is their colour, which is orange, and tables are called "tables", because their most essential function is to function as a table. If we apply this reasoning to dish naming, we can see that the names of dishes also aim to reflect their true essence. A cheeseburger is essentially cheesy, a Caesar salad is essentially a salad, and a carrot cake is essentially constituted by carrots. In all cases the name reflects the true inner nature.

Based on these considerations, we can conclude that if a potato dish is called "baked potato" it must be a potato dish to which the process of preparation, i.e. baking, is essential. Thus, dear reader, if you ever find yourself asking whether a potato that you have eaten was a "baked potato" close your outer eyes, and focus the eye of your very soul (i.e. your intellect) on the true essential nature of the tuber you have just ingested. Soon you will find an answer.

More tuber musings can be found here.

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