Who You Know: Transactive Memory and Culinary Experts

When I wasn't being a research assistant, Aaron and I made Girl Scout-style Thin Mint cookies in our tiny sublet. 

When I wasn't being a research assistant, Aaron and I made Girl Scout-style Thin Mint cookies in our tiny sublet. 

This week we are going to travel back in time to 2009. It was the summer after my sophomore year of college, Shakira's She-Wolf was everywhere, and I was working as a research assistant for Dr. Daniel Wegner at Harvard University. Although I spent more time coaxing Harvard tourists to take surveys than I did in deep discussions with Dr. Wegner, one of our conversations that stuck with me was about a concept called transactive memory.

 

Transactive memory is shared memory storage. For example, my husband is not great with birthdays. He has trouble remembering his closest family members' birthdays, let alone friends or in-laws. We both love any excuse to celebrate, however, so this is something that he trusts me to remember. I am the resident birthday expert.

This kind of designation of knowledge was something Dr. Wegner had experienced in his own life, and inspired a series of experiments where he asked participants, who were either in natural pairs (couples) or assigned pairs (strangers) to study information together. In addition to pair status, he also gave some couples instructions about who was to remember what, but left others to figure it out themselves. Interestingly, he found that the couples were better able to remember the information when left to themselves, but the strangers did better when given structure. This pattern of results, when the effect of one variable (like pair status) depends on another (instructions) is called an interaction. These can be tricky to interpret, but what it suggested to Dr. Wegner was that the couples already had an organizational system for their shared knowledge--what he called a transactive memory system--in place. 

Since his original experiments, the theory of transactive memory has been expanded quite a bit, certainly beyond the context of this blog post (if you are interested, here's a good resource summary). But the basic idea of having someone that you can trust to know about a particular topic, that is crucial when you are beginning to cook.

The more you cook, the more you realize that the culinary world is limitless. Every country has its own regional cuisines, from pesto Genovese to Sichuan hot pot. On top of those are the infinite possible blends of each cuisine--think, Korean nachos. Then there are food cultures built around vegetarian or vegan ideals, or with emphases on local foods... you see where I'm going. 

To deal with all this variety, it's helpful to develop your own transactive memory system, to know what chefs or websites you can trust when you get a craving for cassoulet or Carolina style barbecue. Today, I thought I would help you with that by sharing my favorite sources:

 

Kenji's new book came out this year, and it is a powerhouse. It won Amazon cookbook of the year, a James Beard Award for best cookbook for general cooking, and was runner up in Food52's annual piglet contest 

Kenji's new book came out this year, and it is a powerhouse. It won Amazon cookbook of the year, a James Beard Award for best cookbook for general cooking, and was runner up in Food52's annual piglet contest 

General Resources: 

 

Dessert: Generally, I refer to one of the sources above. Of my baking books, however, these are the ones I cook from the most. 

  • Bouchon Bakery: Not for beginners, but amazing recipes and illustrations of techniques.
  • Christina Tosi/Momofuku Milk Bar: These recipes can be a bit fussy, but for creative, crave-worthy desserts this book can't be beat. 
  • Dahlia Bakery: The recipes in this book have been foolproof so far, and beyond delicious. Just look at it!

Regional Foods

  • French: David Lebowitz, while not actually French, has been living in Paris for years and is great at communicating French food and culture. His book, My Paris Kitchen, was immensely helpful when I was living in Europe.
  • Indian: Madhur Jaffrey is another example of a great cultural communicator. I've linked to a BBC collection of her recipes, but I recommend her book "An Invitation to Indian Cooking" for those who want to start making Indian food more regularly.
  • Italian: Marcella Hazan is most famous on the internet for her dead simple tomato, onion, and butter sauce, which is kind of a shame. Because while that sauce is delicious, the scope of her knowledge and her impact on how Americans thought about Italian food was so much more than that.
  • Mexican: Rick Bayless, of PBS fame and the Chicago restaurant empire, knows his Mexican food. Despite his midwestern origins, he has become an ambassador for regional Mexican cooking. His recipes never disappoint, and I am always sure to visit his restaurants--and drag my friends!--every time I visit Chicago.
  • Middle Eastern: Ottolenghi's food is fresh, vibrant, and flavorful. His vegetarian cookbook, Plenty, has suprised me with great dishes out of ingredients I didn't think I liked more times than I can count. His recipes can be a little bit more complicated than what I want on a weeknight, or call for hard to find ingredients, but they are worth it every time.
  • Vegetarian: Jeanine from Love and Lemons makes vegetable focused dishes drawing from a variety of cuisines that are sure to make your mouth and your stomach happy. 

This is, of course, a highly personal and subjective list. There are some great chefs and bloggers that I have left off (e.g., Jamie Bissonette, whose Thai-style pulled pork I made yesterday and now can't wait to make again) in the interest of not overwhelming you. Plus, part of the fun of cooking comes from finding your own favorite chefs and developing a transactive memory system that is all your own. 

If you have any of your own favorites, please feel free to share them in the comments!

Happy Eating!

Angela