The joys of Consuming (and capitalizing) Chance


Here’s my book report of the week on “How the Hot Dog Found its Bun” by Josh Chetwynd. The book takes us on a historical food tour of  discovery that adds magic and meaning to mundane small meals like hotdogs, nachos, Caesar salad, Cobb salad, Mcdonald’s Filet o’ Fish and Tempura. Each is a lesson in cultural collisions (like Tempura, Chimichangas, nachos and Chicken Tika Masala), business (in the case of the Mcdonald’s fish filet sandwich) , morality (in the case of graham crackers, PEZ the anti-smoking mint), efficiency (like cookies and cream ice-cream or nutella) and such. All these short “origin” stories are worth the read alone.

For me, the theme of serendipity, chance and luck that tied the stories loosely together made for a larger philosophical claim: To  be open and willing to convert the disruption of falling sales on Friday or unexpectedly late restaurant patrons, into something new and delicious. To turn a mistake (Molten Lava Cake) into something cherished. To defy the discomfort of an accident and turn it into luck. Its a difficult lesson to hold on to at the moment when we’re searching for a way out of an embarrassing mistake or of being unprepared, as window into something delicious. We do this everyday when we substitute ingredients with what we have sitting in the fridge. Yesterday, I sprinkled feta cheese over my chicken enchiladas with salsa verde…..the tart sharpness of the feta was so yummy with the hot bite of green chilies, cilantro and tomatillos. In my mental recipe database, what was accidental just turned into intentional……and my very own discovery. Small victories and joys.

Here is something I learned about the history of serendipity from the book besides a wonderful collection of surprising food stories.

Behind these lucky discoveries are usually acts of serendipity, a concept first coined by Horace Walpole in 1754. He’d read a book about Serendip (modern-day Sri Lanka) called The Three Princes of Serendip and was fascinated by the title characters, who “were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” Using that quote as a definition, he started describing some of his work as serendipity.

What makes serendipity so fascinating is the combination of the lucky find and the smarts (or to use Walpole’s fancier term sagacity) to capitalize on the breakthrough. As Albert Einstein once said about discovery: ” The really valuable factor is intuition….There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.” The intuition to turn what looks like a blunder into something special comes up often throughout this book.”

Wishing all of you Good-Luck (as chance favors the prepared..according to Luis Pasteur) and happy reading,

The Hungry Philosopher