Steven Shapin is a professor of the history of science at Harvard. He has written books on 17th-century science and is now interested in things to do with taste and subjectivity.
“Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” The dictum is attributed to Bismarck. In fact, he didn’t say it, but it would have made a better story if he had, a bit like Walter Bagehot’s more famous “We must not let in daylight upon magic.” Bismarckian and British Victorian politics were thought to be best conducted well out of the public gaze.
But what about sausages? Or, since it’s the subject at hand, what about meatballs?
One of the notable recent changes in our culture is that many of us do now want to know how our laws, our science, our art – and our meatballs – are made. The idealized transparency of politics and the scientific laboratory is mirrored by the open kitchens of our poshest restaurants. We feel no loss in magic from seeing how it’s done.
Lucky Peach’s marvelous short film about meatball-making gives us both bits of the non-Bismarck quotation: It shows us how it’s done and it shows us a conflict of laws for doing it. Version 1 belongs to one of Manhattan’s top red-sauce Italian chefs, Mario Carbone; version 2 is the recipe of Maria, his mama, whose authenticity his restaurant trades on. She stands sentinel as Mario makes his meatballs, and the result is a 12-minute melodrama whose recipe is a bit of Ibsen and a bit of Mike Leigh, with touches of Sophocles, Richard Wagner, and Mel Brooks. Do you put in pecorino or parmigiano reggiano? Bread crumbs or no bread crumbs? These things matter.
Fortunately, objectivity is at hand. Mario’s meatballs are presented for judgment to his father, who pronounces them excellent. They are, he says, Maria’s meatballs.