Daily Archives:October 11th, 2009


I’m very impressed at what the Cambridge University Office of Communication have been up to recently. There’s a wonderful selection of stuff on iTunes U (which is now easy to access directly on an iPhone or iPod Touch).

But I’ve also just discovered the Cambridge University YouTube Channel which also has much of the same material in a different layout. The quality is excellent.

There are some lovely shorts produced by Windfall Films, too, in the Cambridge Ideas playlist. Here’s six minutes of my pal David Mackay:

On the origin of puddings by natural selection

I worry about the future. In particular I worry, as so many of us must, about whether the progress in desserts that has been achieved over the last few millennia will slow down in the centuries to come.

There are probably those who believe that puddings were all created long ago in a dramatic few days’ work, and collected together in Mrs Beeton’s ark, and have been fairly static ever since. Indeed, if one considers a beautiful specimen of Sticky Toffee Pudding, it is hard to believe that there wasn’t one, single infallible designer somewhere near the Garden of Cartmel who came up with the perfect dessert in one glorious act of creation.

But in truth the evidence for culinary evolution is all around us. I remember, when the family were invited to friends’ houses in my childhood, my mother would often ask for the recipe of any particularly delicious courses, and she in turn would pass the recipe on to others when requested. Sometimes, variations would be introduced by, say, an expected local shortage of brown sugar requiring a substitute to be found. If that mutation proved particularly successful, it would increase its likelihood of being replicated both in our own puddings, and of the recipe being transmitted more widely elsewhere. See? All the Darwinian… umm, ingredients… are there!

Now, I’m sure this process still occurs amongst those who have more frequent culinary intercourse than I do, but I wonder if the wide availability of standard recipes, of mass-media to transmit them, and the rarity of brown sugar shortages in this time of plentiful supply, means that the process of culinary evolution has slowed. On the other hand, it could be argued that, while mutations may be less frequent, the adoption of successful ones can now be much swifter.

Anyway, this is particularly exciting for me, because I’ve occasionally contemplated a return to academia, and have wondered about finding a topic of research that could truly capture my heart. Now, though, I intend to start submitting grant applications for a major project to trace the evolution of desserts, do extensive studies of the true qualities of various historical recipes around the globe, and explore whether such factors as online social networks can be harnessed to keep up the pace of culinary progress so that future generations have something to look forward to.

It would, of course, be tragic to make such research so theoretical that it was of little use beyond the ivory towers, so my proposal will be for a very ‘applied’ approach, involving extensive user testing…

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser