I want to build a world that satirizes the modern cult of cooking. The cult has a long list of infractions that will ruin a dish and render it inedible. For example:

  • Chopping an onion the wrong way

  • Holding the knife the wrong way

  • Using table salt instead of kosher salt

  • Measuring dry ingredients by weight rather than by volume

  • Measuring dry ingredients by volume rather than by weight

  • Not frying onions before adding to stew

  • Confusing unflavoured with "vanilla" ice cream

  • Boiling pasta beyond "al dente"

  • Slicing meat along the grain

  • Making pesto using a food processor rather than a mortar and pestle

  • Adding cream to carbonara

  • Pouring milk in the cup before the tea

  • Pouring tea in the cup before milk

  • Thick based pizza

  • Well-done beefsteak

  • Not salting Pasta Water

  • Boiling and washing rice rather than using the absorption method

  • Holding chopped ingredients between the knife blade and your other hand.

  • Cooking meat by time rather than internal temperature

In reality some of these mistakes have the potential to ruin a dish. For example if you modify a pizza recipe with a thicker base, you must also modify the recipe to cook longer. Other mistakes simply give a different product which you might or might not prefer, rather then rendering the dish inedible.

The cult is not appeased by reason however. With a flourish they declare your creation is no longer a pizza and should be destroyed before the Neapolitans find out and declare war (again).

Note: when I say the wrong way I don't have a correct way in mind. The point is there are several proposed correct ways and they all conflict with each other while claiming to be the single truth.

I want to build a world that parodies all the misconceptions of cooking culture by pretending the misconceptions are all facts. In this world cooking is extremely sensitive. Cutting an onion wrong will make it poisonous and overboiling pasta will not simply change the dish, but render it inedible.

What is the minimum change required to the universe to make the above possible? I would like the change to be small relative to the number of rules that it makes true.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Don't you already have the answer? Some people just simply absolutely, vehemently hate hate hate the way some things are done -> make universal. ;) $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Oct 6, 2021 at 13:42
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    $\begingroup$ Digital Rights Management of recipes and licensed ingredients, groceries, eateries, and stomachs? If you do it wrong, your stomach will disable itself. $\endgroup$
    – Dave X
    Oct 7, 2021 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ If you are Italian and joined the cult of cooking, chances are that you already live in this world. Overboiled pasta IS inedible. $\endgroup$
    – 0x5C91
    Oct 7, 2021 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ In the case of the pairs of laws that directly contradict eachother, (dry measurement and milk/tea order), do you want the cult to simultaneously hold both beliefs? There are certainly examples of that in real-world religions, but it could be problematic. Maybe it's the cause of a schism into two religious cults with a bitter rivalry over it... $\endgroup$ Oct 7, 2021 at 18:36
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    $\begingroup$ Are you somehow implying that cooking in the real world is easy? Just because you are used to it, doesn't mean it's easy, let alone other people think it's easy. I can make a handful of dishes with moderate ease, but I often still don't want to cook because it takes too much effort. Ok, so that's a bit of an excuse at times, but it's really very easy to ruin food. $\endgroup$ Oct 7, 2021 at 21:01

12 Answers 12


It looks like you want a world with a law of narrative causality.

Why is cooking such an exacting thing where cutting an onion wrong will result in it turning poisonous at best, or worse, transforming into a maddening tentacled beast from another dimension that will bring destruction and ruin upon all who behold it? Because you're writing a parody of modern cooking culture.

Don't explain it. Make it over the top. If there's a consistent and logical explanation for why you need to turn clockwise 3 exactly times while holding your legumes in front of you at chest height, (hold them higher and you will forget your partner's birthday and anniversary) before blanching them, then you're attempting to explain the absurd, which ruins the humor.

If you want a good example of well built worlds that doesn't belabor the explanation I suggest looking at Terry Pratchett's Discworld books where he explains enough so that people understand how things are different, but doesn't explain why things are that way. For instance it's in world knowledge that Dragons breathe fire not because they have asbestos lungs, but because that is what dragons do..

Do the same thing with your world. It's a parody of cooking culture so of course things get weird when people cook. If you want handwave the explanation with something as equally as absurd as the cooking. Perhaps the elder beings lying dreaming are having a spot of indigestion, or a newly awoken post singularity AI had too many cooking shows in the training data.

  • 22
    $\begingroup$ I'm reminded of WH40k... Why does painting the car red make it faster? Because the Orks believe it does. The "laser gun" shoots lasers... because it's a laser gun. Never mind that it's just a plastic shell filled with gravel. Collective belief makes it real, physics be damned. Weber's Multiverse also works the same way; the efficacy of "physics" and "magic" are both related to collective belief in the same. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Oct 6, 2021 at 16:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Matthew I'd argue that 40k is all over the place with their level of explanation, Some places just say the "Da Red unz go Fasta!!!!!" Others places make a whole show of trying to explain it as part of a collective psychic unconscious of the orks" $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Oct 6, 2021 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ If things aren't over the top, I'd probably misinterpret the OP as being serious about these cooking mistakes. transforming into a maddening tentacled beast from another dimension that will bring destruction and ruin upon all who behold it is a MUCH clearer way of communicating the message the OP wanted than 'it tastes kinda wrong'. $\endgroup$ Oct 7, 2021 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ "Terry Pratchett ... doesn't explain why things are that way." -- I beg to differ vehemently. Dragons in particular are explained in details not found in most books that sport dragons (see Errol from Guards! Guards!, discworld.fandom.com/wiki/Errol). This and other explanations for common fantasy tropes (like why trolls freeze in sunlight -- not explained in The Hobbit or elsewhere) may not work in universes that lacks Narrativium (wiki.lspace.org/mediawiki/Narrativium) but they are present in the Discworld books and at least nearly plausible. $\endgroup$
    – straycat
    Oct 7, 2021 at 22:52
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    $\begingroup$ I like this answer. Just commenting because as I read this I couldn't help but imagine those intrepid souls who would work in food research. Braving tentacle beasts, insanity, and time travel just so we can all enjoy a better peach cobbler. $\endgroup$
    – Quaternion
    Oct 8, 2021 at 21:25

Nothing about the food, nor the cooking, is different to our world; it's the people who are different. The humans in your world are extremely intolerant to even minor variations in what they eat. They have evolved that way because it is socially advantageous to have very discerning tastes (this is the sign of a connoisseur!), and who is more discerning than someone who literally has to vomit if they eat food cooked slightly wrong?

Consider that in the real world, people of low social status are allowed to enjoy all manner of junk food, whereas in more elite social circles it's frowned upon to tolerate a steak cooked all the way through. Just take that to the extreme and imagine it driving natural selection.

This even explains why there are multiple, mutually contradictory "wrong ways": humans in your world are very discerning in various different ways.

  • $\begingroup$ Exactly what I thought - no need to concoct an entire universe made of poison, just make your humans extra picky $\endgroup$ Oct 7, 2021 at 5:49
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    $\begingroup$ You could enforce the pickiness with competing medical health corporations/insurance companies requiring surgically implanted diet monitors. Imagine WeightWatchers partnered with Applebees and BlueCross/BlueShield. $\endgroup$
    – Dave X
    Oct 7, 2021 at 16:48

You must do it right or you get sick.


IN a recent appraisal of the state of knowledge on pellagra', it was agreed that the problem of the pellagra.genie properties of maize is not yet solved and that the etiology of the disease is by no means simple. The incidence of pellagra is reported to be low in some regions of Mexico where the consumption of maize is high ; the explanation of this is not clear -it may be that the disease is not, diagnosed or reported, that the diet contains some foods, for example, beans, which protect the consumer, or it may be the result of the method of preparing the maize grain for making tortillas. The last of these possible explanations has led to several investigations on the effects on the nutritive value of maize when treated with lime in the Mexican manner...

Pellagra was a big problem in Europe in the 1700s and 1800s, especially in Italy. People were sickly and demented and died. It was clear this had something to do with a mostly maize diet. Maize was calorically rich and easy to grow but there was something bad about it. It turned out that the Europeans weren't preparing it right: you need to treat maize with lime to release the niacin. I read an account of an international conference on pellagra where the Mexican representative proposed exactly that but was roundly ignored.

We are so taken care of by the centuries of breeders that bred out toxins from potatoes, and food regulations that got rid of trichinosis, and fancy lettuce so we don't need to boil our pokeweed twice. Proper preparation or cultural food rules saved lives.

This sort of thing might be a poor match for a light fiction. People getting sick because of their ignorance is no joke.

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    $\begingroup$ To be clear lime = slaked lime (CaOH), not the fruit $\endgroup$ Oct 7, 2021 at 5:47
  • $\begingroup$ @JulianaKarasawaSouza The fruit probably also works in this case, since the standard remedy for vitamin deficiency is to, pardon my French, "eat a god-damned vegetable." $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Oct 7, 2021 at 12:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Daron except not really; fruit doesn't have niacin in it. Niacin is found strongly in meats, with tuna having up to 22 mg/100 g. The stereotypical green leafy vegetables have little, with kale at 0.4 mg/100 g, one-fifth the level of hot dogs. $\endgroup$
    – prosfilaes
    Oct 7, 2021 at 12:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Daron it would work if the problem was scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) $\endgroup$ Oct 7, 2021 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ I'll note that I would find this explanation more convincing in the case that the humans are settlers, rather than natives. Plants can easily evolving poisons to block predation (or at least, predation by animals that won't spread the seed around), but typically the native species will co-evolve to be able to handle a subset of the native food in some fashion. $\endgroup$
    – Brian
    Oct 7, 2021 at 17:45

Unfortunately almost all cooking practices closely mirror magical rituals. If you aren't * extremely * careful, that Neapolitan pizza you make, might inadvertantly convert your brother-in-law into a 1950s oldsmobile. With demonic possession on the side. Or just taste like old jogging shoes

This one, for me, has the most potential for satire.

In this world, chopping an onion in any number of ways, is also most unfortunately, a magic ritual element that depending how you chop, could do anything from summon Donald Trump, to converting the next object you touch to a stale baguette. Including your head, if in a moment of madness, you touch that.

Kneading motions (as for pizza dough) in anything but a purple amethyst bowl, will bring torrential rain, and darkness for 3 days.

Placing the pizza in an oven without protective salt and on a cast bakelite tray blessed by a Priest of the Awakened Goddess of Kitchen Cupboards, inevitably will mean by the time its cooked, it has been possessed by a demon.

The basic problem is that when magic looks like cooking, then to just get a meal, you have to be almost paranoid levels of careful.......

(Or if you just want it to ruin the meal but nothing more, tone it down a bit. If it has magical implications, the foods essence is drawn into magic leaving any food ingredient inevitably tasting like 8 year old jogging shoes)


The world has a confusing mess of bacteria and fungi on food that change the flavor and poison content of food.

In this world microbiomes are a lot more extensive, and there are lots of sort of bacteria and fungi that have a huge impact on taste.

Each chef has adapted an extensive set of rituals that work effectively to ensure the right mixes of bacteria for each food item to make sure it's edible. These rituals vary from region to region and food type to food type.

If a chef tries to use rituals that work in their restaurant in another restaurant they'll find their food is inedible because they followed the wrong set of rituals.

The cult is right to ban inappropriate food items.

Most cultures have devised carefully homogenous foods and preparation styles that effectively minimize the risk of poison and maximize the flavour, with enough tolerance for deviation that things won't go wrong.

That pizza you made with wild experimentation though? Their microbiocme might alter other food items, and maybe if you did it again but held the knife slightly differently it would be poisonous. You risk unsettling the microbiome the culture has set up and causing mass starvation and poisonings till they adapt to the new norm.

That isn't a pizza. That's a terrorist weapon.

  • $\begingroup$ Our modern world of cooking is already heavily influenced by the microscopic entities that live in/on our food, and our cooking practices might look equally bizarre to someone coming from a world without them. To make things even more strange, you have a completely separate microbiome in your gut. Internal and external microbiomes can conflict and cause all sorts of digestive issues. $\endgroup$
    – bta
    Oct 8, 2021 at 21:48

If you don't want to invoke magic - and you could: the world might have been, I don't know, designed by the goddess Hestia as a hell for cooks - you need to change a lot of biochemistry with a lot of ad hoc gotchas.

I've tried to reduce the gotchas to as few different mechanisms as I could, and obviously those mechanisms aren't really... realistic. They make absolutely no sense from an evolutionary point of view, for example; you'd have to handwave it by stating that the world population is not native of that world at all, and the cooking techniques were developed a long time ago when, after planetfall, they found themselves forced to survive on the existing ecology (this in turn requires a chain of unlikely circumstances, somewhat similar to the fortuitous colonization of M. Z. Bradley's Darkover or D. D. Storm's Mud/Aurora).

Basically, on your world most foods have to essentially be poison, requiring careful and precise steps to be neutralized. Not adding salt in pasta's water is like botching a nixtamalization, except worse. Foods also contain antidotes to each other, so ingredients have to be prepared and mixed just so, or else.

  • Chopping an onion the wrong way: onions have specialized cells containing a poison precursor. This can be neutralized in several ways - by heating, or mixing with acidic juices - but if it ever mixes with the rest of the onion, you get a difficult-to-remove neurotoxin. So, the preparation of onions resembles the Japanese art of preparing fugu, and even requires a license.

  • Holding the knife the wrong way. Depends on the food, but several of them have the same problem as onions. To cut food properly (and safely), you need the right knife, and need to hold it in the correct way.

  • Using table salt instead of kosher salt. On Earth, sea salt is contaminated by iodine. Here, you get a choice of several less savoury contaminants. Depending on the dish, you use one type of salt or another.

  • Measuring dry ingredients by weight rather than by volume or vice versa: some ingredients are capable of absorbing juices by volume, others are not; some may experience extreme density variations. So density-varying ingredients need to be weighed, activated carbon-like ingredients need to be measured by volume.

  • Not frying onions before adding to stew - same as above: you risk the poison precursor to spoil the food.

  • Boiling pasta beyond "al dente" - same mechanism. Overcooking Earth pasta releases the starch from the the gluten; overcooking your world's pasta destroys enzymes that are needed to efficiently digest it.

  • Slicing meat along the grain: see "onions", above.

  • Making pesto using a food processor rather than a mortar and pestle: again see "onions". The

  • Adding cream to carbonara:

  • Pouring milk and tea in the wrong order: you get four different chemical reactions if you pour milk into the tea, tea into the milk, or if you spray same (this actually happens, to an extent, with Earth milk and teas too), and is a common occurrence in chemistry (e.g. you never, ever dilute concentrated sulphuric acid with water - you always add the acid to a pre-calculated measure of water. In my lab they said, "never let the acid drink" - apparently that's an Italian saying though).

  • Thick based pizza and Well-done beefsteak: both assure different reactions will take place in the food (thin pizza cooks all together, the thicker it is, the more difference between the inside and the outside).

  • Not salting Pasta Water: same thing. You need the exact quantity of salt to ensure the food comes out properly. And you need to cook it for the appropriate time.

  • Holding chopped ingredients between the knife blade and your other hand - with many ingredients you can get a contact poison on your skin. The poison is easily washed out and neutralized by heat, so it almost doesn't qualify as a poison, unless you chop something and contaminate your hand. Then you get urushiol-like burns.

  • Cooking meat by time rather than internal temperature - same again.

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    $\begingroup$ I also thought of fugu and how all food sources can be like it. But your answer covers it in much more depth. I also had no idea about differences in measuring by weight or volume, thank you for touching on it. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Oct 6, 2021 at 18:56
  • $\begingroup$ how are all the domesticated animals poisonous, and yet the predatory species has no defense. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Oct 6, 2021 at 22:17
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    $\begingroup$ @John no no no, if you look at it from the evolutionary point of view it will never make sense. The best I could come up with is, that is not the world's dominant species' homeworld. They came from somewhere else, and lost all their food sources, and had to learn to make do with the local ecology. And this also makes little sense from a different point of view... $\endgroup$
    – LSerni
    Oct 6, 2021 at 22:28
  • $\begingroup$ You should add that inot the answer, it makes it make a lot more sense. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Oct 6, 2021 at 22:47
  • $\begingroup$ @John thanks for the suggestion, edited answer. $\endgroup$
    – LSerni
    Oct 6, 2021 at 23:10


Or: How to Stop Worrying and Love the Rules

The reason your people can't cook wrong is because their universe won't allow it. Cut an onion the wrong way? At best, it'll turn out to be inedibly rotten; at worst, it'll explode.

Since this is just about as handwave-y as you can get, here's an alternative.


As above, so below

In Real Life there are some foods which will kill you if you don't prepare them correctly. For example, take the common red kidney bean. About as bland and harmless as you can get, right?

Wrong. Kidney beans contain a powerful toxin which, if consumed orally, will result in severe vomiting and diarrhea. At the same time. It's really not fun. What's more, if you don't cook the beans correctly the toxin gets worse. Much worse. "Two beans is enough" worse. Only by fully cooking the beans is the poison destroyed.

While the kidney bean is an extreme case, the same goes for a lot of common foods. You know how people tell you not to eat apple seeds? It's because they contain large amounts of cyanide.

You know how people say not to eat potato eyes? It's because potatoes are a derivative of nightshade, and the greenery is still poisonous.

You know how cross-contamination is verboten? It's because it causes food poisoning.

You know how cyanide smells like almonds? It's the other way around.

In case you haven't figured it out yet, this is a frame challenge. We already live in your hypothetical world. The reason most people don't realize that is because it makes sense. Although rituals like avoiding cross-contamination might seem weird the first time you see them (it certainly did when it was introduced!), once we know why we have these rituals they become normal, and we cease to notice them.

  • $\begingroup$ Who says not to eat potato eyes? I have eaten loads of potato eyes. It never occurred to me to remove them. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Apr 21, 2022 at 20:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Daron At some point somebody died or got really sick from eating the eyes, so "gouge out the eyes" became part of the cooking ritual. $\endgroup$
    – User70058
    Apr 21, 2022 at 20:56
  • $\begingroup$ When you say "eyes" do you mean the little tentacles that old potatoes get? Or do you mean the places those tentacles come from? $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Apr 21, 2022 at 22:16

This site gets lots of questions of the form "what's the simplest way to introduce <bizarre restriction or requirement>". The answer to this question (in fiction and in real life) is nearly always lawyers.

Your world suffers from completely insane intellectual property laws that are too complicated for most people to understand. The process of manufacturing pesto in a food processor has been patented. The High-N-Mighty Pasta Company has patented nearly every formulation of cooked pasta imaginable, but a bookkeeping error caused their patent for al dente to lapse into the public domain. Pouring milk in the cup before the tea is the main way that the Green Mermaid Overpriced Coffee Company distinguishes itself from competitors, and they have a registered trademark on the technique.

The chefs of your world have very strict rules because the owners of these patents, trademarks, etc. are very happy to sue the pants off of anyone who they think is infringing on their intellectual property. If you serve that dish in your restaurant, you could bring a lawsuit that shuts the restaurant down for good. Even when cooking in your own home, anyone who witnesses such an infraction can report you to the patent owner for a significant reward. Therefore, it is vitally important that you stick exactly to the recipes that your culinary school's lawyers taught you. Any deviations must be immediately destroyed lest they become "exhibit A".

Different lawyers can give different advice, so some chefs do some things slightly differently than others. Some things are universally, undeniably wrong (like eating pizza with a fork), but many are open to slight variations from region to region. Nobody has actually been sued over these variations, though, because most of these patents expired ages ago. The law is so convoluted and complex, however, that only a small handful of lawyers that work for major food companies actually know this. The massive lawsuits they filed during their 70-year reign of terror has the world so completely terrified of being sued into oblivion that they've developed cult-like rituals that enshrine methods of navigating the legal minefield. They interpret their lack of being sued as evidence that they are correct, and that anyone not following those rules is a legal disaster waiting to happen.


Cooking is an Existential Religious Practice

The sacred rules cannot be broken.

The Orthodox Church of Cooking Slayers of Heretics rules this world with an iron first, because the peoples’ eternal souls are at stake. Everyone understands that chopping onions in the wrong way damns them to eternal suffering.

But, in bedtime stories to scare children, and in hushed whispers are heretical talk of cooking differently.

It is the worst-case scenario for the Orthodox Church of Cooking Slayers of Heretics if a Reformed Church of Cooking Slayers of Heretics is able to take root. It would be holy war because the Reformed Church allows the salting of pasta water. Those heretics!

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Iron fist? Don't you mean iron frying pan? $\endgroup$
    – Jedediah
    Oct 7, 2021 at 2:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Jedediah If they're both made of iron, why can't they be the same thing? $\endgroup$
    Oct 7, 2021 at 4:55

Do it correct or the gods will smite you

There are gods in this world who have really strong opinions on how to prepare dishes. They passed on their very strict rules to the humans in form of holy scriptures and expect those rules to be followed to the letter. But contrary to most religions on Earth, there is very definitive proof that these gods exist, are indeed very powerful and that they do intervene directly if mortals break their rules.

Why? Well, they are gods. They act in mysterious ways. It is not for mere mortals to question their judgment.

For added satire, you could make those gods caricatures of well-known people from the cooking community.


Suppose there is no nitrogen in atmosphere. Then humans would be able to survive even with ~121 millibars of pressure. That corresponds to water boiling pressure of ~50 C.

Boiling an egg in a world like this would require pressure cooker.

Suppose that burning flesh produces something poisonous. Then if you want to fry your meat/potatoes, you have to be very careful - it turns a little dark at the edge, you have to clean it carefully or throw it away.


Everything is a pufferfish

All fruits, vegetables, and animals are basically pufferfish in that they are highly toxic unless prepared by special trained chefs who know exactly how to cut the non-poisonous bits out of each item.

Then when cooking each item must be cooked to a exact temperature for exact amount of time to destroy any remaining toxins (don't cook to high or too long otherwise other chemical reactions will kick in creating deadly amounts of new toxins). Certain foods (like pasta) must be cooked in exact amount of a liquid with added chemicals (like salted water) to enable certain chemical reactions to occur and destroy the toxins (and not create new ones).

There are slightly different ways to prepare the food, as you can take slightly different chemical pathways to destroy the toxins. But be warned the margin of error is small (which is why most chefs cant reproduce other peoples work).


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