So back to Gerhard’s question.

Which, now that I think about it, I never posted. But it went something like: how could something like a brownie evolve in America, but not in Europe? Well Gerhard, if I had to boil it down to two words, they’d be “professional pride.”

For you see, ever since European communal hearths evolved from do-it-yourself town baking operations into commercial bakeries, baking has been a professional pursuit. Beginning as far back as the first few centuries A.D., formal rules sprung up around it. Mastering the craft meant — and still means — years of study and apprenticeship. It’s the guild system we all read about in high school, the remnants of which still strongly influence the way craftsmen approach their trades on the Continent.

Let’s assume we have two bakers, around the year 1900…one in Europe, one in America. One has spent his life — from the time he was eleven years old — painstakingly learning the craft of baking. He’s spent decades working beside certified masters. He knows that when it comes to working with dough there’s the traditional, time-tested way of doing things, and then there’s the wrong way. For him, wild improvisation is a risk to his standing among his peers. That’s not to say he doesn’t believe in change and improvement. It’s just that most change is incremental, and within established guidelines.

The other baker has spent her life on a small Midwestern farm. She has at best a 10-grade education. Each day she gets up at 5:00 A.M. to milk cows, then spends most of her waking hours doing chores and cobbling together meals for her family according to what ingredients she can afford and/or are available. All she knows of baking is what she learned from her mother, plus the odd recipe she’s picked up from neighbors or in magazines.

Which of these two is more likely to try melting Hershey bars into a cookie recipe? I think it’s obvious. American culture at its heart is adaptive and improvisational, a product of our make-do past. We express it in the way we play jazz, design software, fight on the battlefield, even bake. By many standards, we are an extremely unprofessional lot. For good or for ill, it’s the way we’re wired as a culture. And that’s where brownies come from.

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