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Losing the Recipe

On the rapid degeneration of blueprints for cassettes, pyramids, and wrapped shrimp in bacon.


Garum, pyramids, Roman roads, medieval automatons: these share little in common, except that we don’t quite know how they were made. Their “recipes,” in other words, have been lost. (Garum is not an engineering marvel but a fermented condiment similar to Southeast Asian fish sauce, whose exact characteristics are not known precisely.) Then there is byssus, or “sea silk,” known throughout the Mediterranean world in antiquity and mentioned on the Rosetta Stone; it is an impossibly airy yet warm silk spun from the filaments which Pinna nobilis, a giant mollusk, uses to attach itself to rocks under the sea. The rulers of the ancient world prized byssus, and it was always a luxury good, even though the means by which it was produced were once widely known.

Today, one Sardinian woman named Chiara Vigo is believed to be the last person on the planet who knows how to harvest and process sea silk. Vigo, who is Jewish, was quoted in a B.B.C. interview saying, “Weaving the sea silk is what my family has been doing for centuries. The most important thread, for my family, was the thread of their history, their tradition.”

For every story like this which is reported as a bittersweet human interest story or a historical curiosity, there are probably dozens or hundreds of lost or forgotten crafts, not of any vital importance to modern civilization, but nonetheless representing the extinguishing of lives and generations of work and refinement. Knowledge can be rediscovered or relearned, as it was several centuries after the collapse of the western Roman Empire. In order to remain in circulation, however, knowledge must be embodied and exercised. In some ways, knowledge is more a form of culture than it is a “recipe.” It doesn’t, and can’t, fully exist except by being known, used, and practiced by living people. And it is not only artifacts from the ancient world which can be lost or forgotten.

Some time ago I remember reading an architect’s praise of the beautiful stonework that was once common in America’s civic and commercial buildings. This was on Twitter, so naturally an interlocutor was ready with what must have seemed like a rebuttal of sorts: in those days America had a large number of European immigrant stonemasons who were poor and whose labor was cheap. Beautiful buildings were a quirk of a historical moment; perhaps they were even an ugly reminder of our exploitation of cheap laborers.

This response was not entirely wrong, but it is worth observing that workmanship and artistry are not congruent with affluence, and neither is the carefully and incrementally accumulated knowledge that makes such exquisite workmanship possible. The twin rises of affluence and mechanization beginning with the Industrial Revolution have nearly wiped out poverty and massively raised material standards of living. But they have also rendered many traditional forms of craftsmanship obsolete and inefficient, and so obviated a great deal of such slowly and incrementally accumulated knowledge. The art of building towns and cities is like the above-mentioned hypothesis about stonemasonry writ large. By the first decades of the twentieth century, America’s urban centers had fallen deeply out of favor, and many were in a sorry state. But in the 1960s and 1970s, buoyed by the sense that suburban sprawl had begun to despoil the American landscape, Americans began to discover a new appreciation for historic places. In this period, confining myself only to the region in which I live, historic Annapolis in Maryland, Old Town Alexandria across from Washington, D.C., and the small Virginia villages of Clifton and Waterford were restored after decades of neglect, and today they are valued for their historic charm. This process of urban revitalization—quite distinct from, and probably the opposite of, “urban renewal”—took place all across the country.

It took another ten or twenty years, however, for Americans to awaken to the fact that they no longer quite knew how to build places like this. As James Howard Kunstler, an early popularizer of what became known as the New Urbanism, once put it, old buildings, designed with the expectation that they would last for a very long time, “embodied a sense of chronological connectivity.” This attitude “lends meaning and dignity to our little lives” and “puts us in touch with the ages and with the eternities.” Even a building as commonplace and commercial as a hotel was built with a deliberation scarcely imaginable today. Here is what Kunstler wrote in his book Home From Nowhere about the old Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York, then a small city of less than fifteen thousand people:

The layers of intersecting patterns at work in this place were extraordinarily rich. The patterns had a quality of great aliveness, meaning they worked wonderfully as an ensemble, each pattern doing its job while it supported and reinforced the other patterns. The hotel was therefore a place of spectacular charm. It was demolished in 1953.

The first generation of New Urbanists visited pre-World War II towns, neighborhoods, and cities, observing and recording the fine details of curbs, streets, setbacks, and more. So much of the country’s existing fabric was built according to traditional methods and design standards, yet that working body of knowledge, that “information ecosystem,” was more or less extinct by the 1980s, buried under a regulatory avalanche of single-use zoning and car-oriented planning. The ideas of the streetscape, the interplay between private and public spaces, the street as a “public room,” no longer animated planning or architecture. While it had once been possible to build with beauty almost unconsciously, relying on that body of knowledge, it is now considered something of a boutique concern. New Urbanists essentially had to treat existing American settlements as specimens and use them to reverse engineer that old understanding of town-building. What are now known as “form-based codes” were attempts to codify this previously widely known body of town-building and place-making knowledge.

America’s older settlements aren’t pyramids. They’re places that were continually lived in, even at the lowest point in the fortunes of our urban places. Nonetheless, a new and very different land-use and city-building regime had muscled out the more informal, incremental, fine-grained approach which yielded the places we find beautiful today, but struggle to build anew.

But back to those skilled stonemasons. The Fairfield Carmelites, a community of nuns in Fairfield, Pennsylvania, are in the process of building a complex based on low-tech, Old World construction techniques. They wanted to build one of their utility buildings with dry stone: stones cut to fit together and bear loads without the use of mortar. There was one problem: virtually no architect or builder in the United States still knew how to build in this method. The Carmelites eventually found Neil Rippingale, a Scotch stonemason. Though hailing from a farming family rather than one of stoneworkers, Rippingale has risen to the top of his tiny profession; the Preservation Trades Network, a nonprofit dedicated to traditional building methods, describes him as “probably the most qualified drystone project manager in the [United States], possibly in the world.” This ancient craft lives on only by such conscious and dedicated preservation.

Does “Polynesian chicken” deserve the same dedicated preservation?  Is America worse off for forgetting how to make “Butterfly shrimp with bacon?” Maybe not, but the Chinese-American family that runs The Woks of Life, a wonderfully detailed online compendium of recipes, travel stories, and cultural commentary, has resurrected them just in case. These two early Americanized Chinese dishes rarely if ever appear on menus but were once mainstays. Bill, the “dad in The Woks of Life family,” grew up around a Chinese-takeout kitchen in a Catskills Holiday Inn, where his father was a chef. Polynesian chicken was both an a la carte dish and a component of the “Polynesian Luau for five.” On the recipe’s page online, Bill writes, “Like many of the recipe requests we’ve received from readers, this one is pretty unique. It’s a little piece of Chinese-Americana circa 1975, and you likely won’t find it anywhere else.” Butterfly shrimp in bacon? Similar story. The dish was widely available on Americanized Chinese menus in the 1960s, was probably not invented by a Chinese chef, and is virtually extinct today.

When you look up these recipes online, there are sources other than Woks of Life. But most of them appear to be merely copies of their versions. This suggests that in the absence of a single Chinese-American family of cooking enthusiasts, these recipes might not currently be available to anybody who didn’t once cook or eat them. Are they actually worth cooking or eating? Are they lost, or simply obsolete? That’s a matter of taste. But their preservation, which entails not merely record keeping but actual labor, is in some ways a work of love.

Sometimes, the recipe is more like a blueprint, an almost irreducibly complex manufacturing or engineering process. This is the problem facing the world’s very small but ardent community of cassette tape enthusiasts. Cassette players, blank cassette tapes, and even commercial releases on cassette still exist. In fact, tracking the widely noted “vinyl revival,” sales of cassettes, to the surprise of analysts and most ordinary people, have been increasing over the last several years. With slow and halting progress, some new tape formulations have even been developed, in response to the dwindling supply of blank tape left over from the cassette’s glory days. (If you find a blank Maxell or T.D.K. cassette of recent manufacture for sale somewhere, which still occasionally seems to happen, there’s a good chance the actual tape inside is new-old-stock from many years ago.) Resurrecting old tape formulations and manufacturing lines, or developing new ones, has been a bit of a learning curve, and the best formulations from the 1980s or 1990s have still not been surpassed in quality by anything in production today.

But while the cassette releases and blank tape are blooming, the hardware side is failing to catch up to this newfound enthusiasm. The last cassette players good enough to qualify as home hi-fi machines were produced in the early 2000s. Even at that point, with the format’s sales slipping and with C.D. players widely affordable, cassette decks and players were trending towards the budget end of the market, with all the attendant cost-cutting measures.

The real guts of a cassette player are the mechanism or transport, including the record and playback head. Every company that made cassette equipment once had a storehouse of proprietary transport designs. Today, a single cassette mechanism remains in production: a Chinese clone, produced in several slightly differing variants and levels of quality, of a 1986 Japanese boombox mechanism discontinued in 2009. As far as anybody in the cassette hobby has been able to determine, this is truly the end of the line. Which is to say, any device you can buy new today that plays cassettes, no matter its price tag, contains this budget mechanism.

It is widely believed that much important I.P. relevant to the production of high-performance cassette decks is either lost or destroyed. While most brand names from the hi-fi golden age survive, only a few survive as intact, continuously operating organizations. Consider Nakamichi, a Japanese manufacturer credited with producing the highest fidelity cassette decks ever made. It was acquired in 1998 by a Hong Kong-based holding company, and survives today only as a brand name. What happened to the reams and reams of design documents and schematics? It is very unlikely they all still exist. In 1998, nobody, much less a holding company snapping up a desirable nameplate, thought the cassette market would ever again be a growth opportunity. The actual embodied engineering skills, the ability to read a schematic and to understand the complexities and the possibilities of improvement, are nearly gone. So is the equipment that produced the cassette players, and all the networks of factories full of tooling for high-performance stereo heads and dozens of precision parts.

Eamonn Fingleton, a China and Japan watcher who advocates for American industrial policy, argues that when an industry is offshored, the important loss is not so much that the finished product is made in another country. Rather, the true loss is the entire ecosystem of accumulated knowledge surrounding that product, and the embodied engineering know-how that might evolve into further innovations. Cassette players were lost not to free trade but to the forward march of technology. But while we might have judged that knowledge worthless twenty years ago, it’s curious that some already pine for it. (And on the matter of accumulated knowledge, it is also curious that Sony and Fujifilm are today at the forefront of high-density magnetic tape cartridges for data storage. Perhaps all those decades working with and innovating off of tape yielded an edge there.)

Fingleton’s theme is that manufacturing is about learning by doing. To that we might add the converse: forgetting by not doing. If cassette players are of no interest, understand that this is a general point, and it applies to much simpler devices and manufacturing processes. A turntable, for example, is a much simpler device than a cassette deck, both mechanically and electronically. Furthermore, unlike the playback and record heads that constitute the core of a tape player, turntable cartridges and styluses at all levels of quality have continuously remained in production. There is no engineering obstacle to producing a high-quality turntable. Or so you would think.

When the iconic Japanese electronics brand Technics (a division of Panasonic) brought out an updated version of their classic SL-1200 turntable about five years ago, they ran into what might sound like an unexpected issue: the fabrication of lots of small, individual parts. Jonathan Danbury, an executive of Technics, has pointed out that production costs are higher now than they were fifty years ago. Despite the fact that his company has manufactured millions of turntables for the SL-1200 series, absorbed development costs that might have lowered prices are effectively canceled out. “None of those parts or tools exist any more (except for the lid),” he said in a recent interview, “so we literally have to start from scratch. The present day price of making all of the parts and dies is astronomical compared to what it was.” Elsewhere it has been reported that the original SL-1200 series was discontinued in part because mouldings and other devices integral to production had been worn out.

The recipes, in the form of patents, still exist. But even if you don’t lose the recipe, you may not be able to make it. This is a prime example of what it means to say that knowledge is something embodied: use it or lose it. The recipe itself cannot contain all the knowledge that goes into the final product. These products are not conceived of and brought to market in one or two simple steps, or assembled by hand in a manner that can be preserved by a small number of artisans. They arise out of a large interconnected industrial ecosystem; engineers, designers, prototypers, tool and die shops, fabrication shops. (Apple ran into this issue, in attempting to assemble MacBooks in the United States, with as simple an “ingredient” as a screw.)

One can look with detached curiosity at unknown ancient Egyptian stone-cutting techniques. But there’s something deeply unsettling about the idea that a consumer-grade product produced at scale within most Americans’ living memory is in some sense already lost to time.

The maintenance of any of this knowledge, whether construction techniques or cultural artifacts or industrial processes, is a thorny issue from the perspective of public policy. At a basic level, knowledge can be archived such that it can be studied, and at least not entirely lost. But it’s another matter to keep an obsolete product in production just in case people feel nostalgic for it in twenty years or to keep tastes in food or style from changing. There isn’t always an answer, much less a government solution even if it strikes us as necessary. Perhaps the human imperative to preserve hard-won but seemingly useless knowledge no longer necessary is like Christ’s imperative to “be perfect,” seemingly impossible but worth striving for nonetheless.

At the very least we would do well to cultivate a sense of humility: an understanding that we rely on generations’ worth of knowledge for things we never even think about. In Isaac Newton’s famous words, we stand on the shoulders of giants, even if they were giants who merely inherited the craft of stonework or wrapped shrimp in bacon and called it Chinese food. Maybe there is no answer, but that does not mean there is no problem. Most of us find it difficult to escape the impression that, in comparison with a world in which we were much poorer, when all manner of consumer products cost much more when adjusted for inflation, we are experiencing a lower standard of living, a texture of everyday life that is vaguely but increasingly unpleasant.

What if all the recipes we’ve lost amount to something difficult to describe yet more substantial than simply discrete products or food items going off the market or out of circulation? Virtually every locus of power in modern, post-industrial society implicitly or explicitly believes that the new recipe will be better, and that therefore preserving the old one is a non-issue. But what if it isn’t? What if future generations feel, rightly, that the sum of human knowledge has in some ways shrunk, narrowed and been denied to them? What if they see the value we failed to see in the untold lifetimes of labor embedded in the things we casually threw away? These sorts of questions are not even on the radar of policymakers, and when they are raised, it is too often in the service of nationalism or nativism, rather than a positive, authentic vision of preserving culture and art for their own sake. Certainly none of these are questions that economics or policy can fully answer. But they are important questions—human questions—and given the palpable and growing sense of unease in the developed, post-industrial world, they aren’t questions we’re likely to stop asking.

Addison Del Mastro writes on urbanism and cultural history. His work has appeared in City Journal, America, the Bulwark, and other publications.

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