So, this type of question actually has a sort of history of its own on the Stack Exchange network; the controversy originally started on the Gaming site with What is the point of "help me remember this game" questions?, in which the following arguments were presented against the questions:
- They're very localized; it's unlikely that somebody else will find the question, even if they have the same problem;
- They have the faint air of trivia and are likely to inspire copycats;
- Answers rely on people's rote memory, rather than any skill or comprehension (Grace Note called this "passive knowledge").
Now I'm not saying that all or any of these are strong arguments, or even that they all apply to us, I'm just relating the history, so please hold onto your pitchforks until you've finished reading.
It was shortly afterward that Jeff (one of the site owners) wrote his post The Pee-Wee Herman Rule. To make a very long story very short, this post states:
- If the question doesn't suck too badly, and it looks as though the person who wrote it could potentially become a productive contributor, then we should make their first experience with our community a positive one and allow it.
It's almost like an "everybody gets one" rule of thumb; if you've earned your bulls**t, we'll give you a free pass. Or if you've just stumbled in here, disoriented, but seem like the kind of person we might want to hang out with, we'll let you keep it as an incentive to stay.
I'm still just telling the story. Put away the pitchforks.
This subject then hit the Sci-Fi site and was discussed in the meta question Are book / movie / TV series identification questions allowed? Their community had a very different take on it:
- They fit the Q&A format better than a lot of other questions that get asked; they have exactly one correct answer and not much room extended discussion.
- Their community had gotten pretty efficient at answering them, so the rote memory/passive knowledge argument seemed to be moot;
- "Story ID" questions brought in huge traffic to Usenet groups - even after those groups became infested with spam and off-topic discussion.
I'd add a few more reasons in favour of the questions on Seasoned Advice:
Both the Gaming and SciFi sites are about entertainment. A food is a real item that people can use. The audience will learn far more than just trivia from an "identify-this-food" question. (Well, as long as it's not something mind-numbingly obvious, like a carrot or a bulb of garlic).
People are a lot more like to be familiar with an ingredient than they are with a story or a game. It's not really that localized. Chances are that the majority of people within several large geographical areas have seen this ingredient repeatedly in grocery stores, even if they don't know what it is either.
Ingredients are produced by nature, and there are a finite number of them. There may be some answers from rote memory, but part of being an expert cook is learning to choose and recognize ingredients. A person's ability to answer an identify-this-food question does or should correlate with his/her skill and experience as a cook. Sort of like a geologist being able to identify rocks - it's actually part of the job.
That pretty much defeats all of the original arguments posed against ID questions, and the arguments in favour still apply to us. So I would unequivocally say that yes, we should always consider these questions on topic, and only close them if they have serious unrelated problems.
That being said, I'd like for members to follow a few guidelines when asking these questions (and, @hippietrail, I think you've already got the right idea):
Include as detailed a description as you can muster. Size, shape, colour, texture, taste, smell, weight, density, where you found it, when you found it (seasonal?), etc. If you know the name in a different language but can't translate it, that's great to include too. This is partly to help people answer it but also to help other people find it. The more searchable your question is, the more likely it is to help some future visitor.
Definitely include a photo if you can; multiple photos if it has an odd shape. This won't help anyone find the question but it is by far the most effective way to communicate your question to potential answerers.
If you can - and this is especially important in cases where there's no photo - list some or all of the foods that you know are similar but not the same, and explain the differences. This will help you to receive fewer false positives and avoid wasting time explaining why various shot-in-the-dark answers are wrong.
It's very important to be specific. I'm saying here that the questions are on topic, but if we see a hopelessly vague description that could refer to any of a dozen different types of foods, we probably will close it as Not A Real Question.
As long as you're prepared to be detailed - go for it.