Jefromi proposes in the commentary to:

Is there a tradition where eating something sweet before something savory is the norm?


I would tend to say that food history is a reasonable question as much as food science - they're essentially both a type of "why do we do what we do".

This similar anthropology or food history question was referenced in the comments (still open):

From which culture did our North American meal progression (soup/salad/appetizer + meal + dessert) come from?

Initially, I would have thought these questions are off topic, because we closed this previous case where it has been treated as such, despite an answer already existing (from me) showing actual cultural trends with at least a fairly credible citation was closed for being not a real question:

Why is commercial sandwich bread so popular in the US and UK?

Despite the fact that the OP phrased the question in a rude and aggressive manner, the core question as to why "sliced white bread" is popular in the US would meet Jefromi's guideline, I think--and it is an interesting anthropological question.

I think that all of these questions should either be on topic (and we should reopen the closed ones) OR they should all be off topic and closed.

To provide food for thought, here is a food history question I could ask... do we feel it is a good fit for this site?

Why are chopsticks the main eating utensil in many Asian cultures, but forks and knives serve the same purpose in many European cultures, and those descended from European cultures?

BTW, I am not insisting that they be off topic--I think many of them ARE interesting questions. But I think we should be consistent about it.

  • 1
    Also, meta.cooking.stackexchange.com/q/275/1672: Aaronut (and some others) seem to disagree... possibly I need to close this as duplicate and post my answer there. But on the other hand, it's a very old question, and we have a lot more idea of our community and the kinds of things that are answerable now.
    – Cascabel Mod
    Apr 11, 2013 at 19:22
  • This question is also much more specific and focused than that question.
    – SAJ14SAJ
    Apr 11, 2013 at 19:27
  • Yup, true, not a duplicate I don't think. I may've been taking Aaronut's answer a bit out of context. Food history good, "eating out" and "ethnic food" super vague.
    – Cascabel Mod
    Apr 11, 2013 at 19:30
  • Would this mean asking questions like: what's a tradidtional new years soup in country X are on-topic?
    – MandoMando
    Apr 11, 2013 at 21:11
  • @MandoMando I am not proposing a response to on topic or off--just suggesting we be consistent. You might respond to Jefromi's answer, or add your own...
    – SAJ14SAJ
    Apr 11, 2013 at 21:19

4 Answers 4


I think my views are pretty clear here: food history is an interesting food-related subject, and questions about it are in general on-topic and quite answerable, with some care to get real facts, not just rumors and speculation. The question you linked to about western meal structure is a great example of a question, though it could certainly have a more comprehensive answer.

As a bit of inspiration, the subtitle of On Food and Cooking is "The Science and Lore of the Kitchen". The book is mostly about science, but it does include some historical and cultural information as well, demonstrating that those topics are just as possible to research as food science. In a way, it's just like the science: it's a part of understanding your food.

In general, I think we should strive to be a home for all questions about understanding your food and cooking, insofar as that's possible given the constraints of our Q&A structure. When we disallow categories of questions, it's because those categories tend to share a common undesirable attribute (e.g. "what goes with X" questions are polls), not because we have a fundamental problem with the topic. This isn't a topic where all questions have an obvious problem, so it's not a topic we should shun.

That said, some questions in this topic are pretty subjective; it's perhaps more prone to that than some of our other topics. For example, "why do Americans like greasy fast food?" probably isn't going to get us anywhere. So as with everything else, the fact that this subject is on-topic doesn't mean that no question about it should be closed. No matter what the topic is, it's possible to ask broad questions, subjective questions, localized questions, and poll questions. You do still have to judge individual questions.

The closed question about sandwich bread isn't the best, but I would tend to agree that it's worth asking (and re-opening, assuming people don't disagree here). There's certainly some subjective component - Americans for some reason are more willing to trade exciting fresh bread for convenient sliced bread than Europeans - but it's a real question with real answers, I think.

  • Upvote, I agree to let these questions open, for now.
    – Mien
    Apr 11, 2013 at 19:50
  • +1 They are on-topic IMHO, as long as they are high-quality. Like Chopsticks versus forks, which looks really good IMHO.
    – yo'
    Apr 11, 2013 at 20:35
  • +1 And I agree that they need to be good questions that can have actual facts (historical or otherwise) for answers. Just as some of the food-science questions sort out made-up cooking lore from supported scientific facts, the same could be true of the apparent history questions. Some historical questions may turn out to have a deeper basis, perhaps even one that is now understood with modern science -- but we may not even realize this if we disallow all such history/culture questions.
    – Athanasius
    Apr 12, 2013 at 20:54

Another element to consider, I think, is that we often don't recognize how culturally conditioned our food expectations (and food preparation expectations) are until someone points out a different way -- either from another culture or from some period in history.

For example, a question like "Why do we knead bread dough?" could at first seem like a simple food-science question. "A: Gluten development." But if we cast the net wider, we might notice a lot of breads around the world that aren't kneaded (and often are flat), which maybe just leads us to say: "Improve the question." And we change it to "Why are do we knead the dough for many traditional European breads?"

Except that's actually a historical and anthropological question in addition to a food-science question. In the mid-1900s, most (Western) people would never question the necessity of kneading. But particularly in recent years, there has been a rediscovery of other possible ways to get adequate gluten development without traditional kneading (from extra-long fermentation times to periodic stirring/stretching/folding of wet doughs). Most types of traditional European breads can actually be made well without heavy kneading. From the little bit of research I've done into early English-language cookbooks, it appears that these other techniques were known and fairly common -- maybe even the norm centuries ago -- but then heavy kneading became the primary standard at some point. Why? When there are less labor-intensive ways to create gluten development, why did people take up the heavy-kneading idea so strongly in the late 1800s and early 1900s? Why DO we knead bread dough? (I myself don't know... yet, but I'm pretty sure there's a fascinating historical answer.)

I think a lot of the "why do X?" and "how do I achieve Y?" questions here have similar problems, which is probably the reason why books on food science (like McGee or Modernist Cuisine) necessarily stray into the realm of culture and history so often. We often pretend that there is some sort of separation between "verifiable" food science and history/culture, but ultimately a lot of culinary stuff comes down to "We've always done it this way, and if we do scientific investigation of it, we're going to figure out why our way does what it does." Consideration of whether it can actually be done differently (or even better) often depends on a cultural and/or historical perspective about why we do it in the first place.

I agree with previous answers that the category of appropriate historical/cultural questions needs to circumscribed and kept focused. But as long as the questions have real, verifiable answers, and they impact the way we prepare food in some significant way, I think they have some value.


Most prevelant cookbooks have a large section on history, including Modern Cuisine (counter to title). So there is an argument to be made.

Perhaps the guage should be whether the question and answers will aid people in making better cooking (and food prep in general) decisions. Sometimes knowing the history allows one to challenge the methods or opposite, to stick with the tried and tested.

Both sweet/savory and chopstick/fork questions feel way off topic. Though when you think deeper,knowing their answers help you in planning meals.

  • What's behind your feeling that those questions are off topic? Is it just the fact that they're so different from the vast majority of questions we have here?
    – Cascabel Mod
    Apr 11, 2013 at 21:45
  • @Jefromi can't see those questions being asked in a hopping kitchen, and they strain the 'seasoned advice' double entendre. Regardless of the feeling, the SA questions are likely to stay in eternity of the internets. Thereby justifying the capturing of the history and the anthro. IMHO.
    – MandoMando
    Apr 12, 2013 at 18:14
  • Don't read too much into the site name. "Seasoned Advice" is a name chosen to be short and catchy, not to define the scope of the site. Sites don't get special names like that anymore, except in a special case, but even with clear names like "english language and usage" the names are meant more as summaries than definitions.
    – Cascabel Mod
    Apr 13, 2013 at 1:41
  • With respect to "asked in a hopping kitchen"... I don't think most of our questions are really things you'll ask in the middle of cooking. You'll wait til you're just thinking about food later to ask about the chemistry of meat color or about what you should look for in a new blender... or why you just ate that meal with chopsticks instead of a fork.
    – Cascabel Mod
    Apr 13, 2013 at 1:43
  • And even though some of our material indicates the site is targeted at professionals, I think it is in practice mostly home cooks that use it. I know I haven't been a food service professional in 20 years, and even then I was more a manager and then IT type. I was certainly never the cook, except for filling in at the pizza station!
    – SAJ14SAJ
    Apr 13, 2013 at 15:20
  • @Jefromi - Or when you have to write an article or essay about cuisine. There are not always quotable sources on the internet. But, if I may intervene, all these arguments are part of a "culinary culture" which can not exist without asking questions and looking for answers :) - (hides herself lol) Apr 17, 2013 at 13:58

I am against allowing the anthropological questions on the site. Not because they are not interesting - they are very interesting indeed. But because

  1. Cooks rarely have the expertise in this area
  2. They invite speculation ("Oh, it could be because... Let's write that idea down")
  3. The site visitors don't know the answer either, and vote for the answers which sound cool, without any idea which ones are true.

This is a perfect breeding ground for myths.

This site tries to find out the true answers for people, not just opinions or speculations, but these questions invite the latter. And everybody is doing it without being aware that he's doing it - I've seen it in others, I've recognized it also in myself months later, when coming across some enthusiastic answer which has no other merits than "sounds logical".

Also, Stack Exchange has a "History" site by now, which might be the place with more expertise on the subject. A historian might not know off the top of his head why Americans oriented themselves towards eating beef and Arabs towards mutton. But he'll have the mindset of "check a source" instead of going with a thought like "Arabs also needed the wool, but Americans had enough cotton production to not care". Did they? And if they did, was this really the reason? It's the first explanation I can think of, but I have no idea if it's true. But if I were to write it as an answer, I'm sure I'd get upvotes for it.

If everybody is for them, maybe we should allow them, but then at least think up strategies to prevent myth building.

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