** Note: This is the first of weekly Recipe Wednesday posts about the art and craft of writing recipes. Subjects will vary from nuts-and-bolts considerations of recipe style to philosophical thoughts on what recipes accomplish to reflecting on the value recipes have for food brands, and beyond. They will draw from my own experience and perspectives, as well as those of colleagues and other experts. Today’s topic may not be where I’d imagined I’d start this series, which I meant to start months ago. I’ve been thinking about recipes very intently for the last few years. I’ve contemplated their form, function and creative expression. I’ve written thousands of words about recipe components, gathered notes and quotes about recipes from countless sources and have a file folder stuffed with articles, clippings and–recipes!–collected with this focus in mind. And that’s the problem. I have amassed so much information, so many perspectives I want to share, that I have been stymied in figuring out where to start. Something about this podcast episode I listened to over the weekend was apparently just the nudge I needed. So here we go, off and running.
I know I can count on Good Food on KCRW to offer something thought-provoking, Evan Kleiman and her team put together such intriguing and interesting content each week. This week’s episode was no different. I was particularly struck by part of the conversation with Priya Basil about her book Be My Guest: Reflections on Food, Community and the Meaning of Generosity. I’ve been down a deep recipe rabbit-hole in the past few years, consumed by thinking about their form, function and creative expression. I’ve been considering the very many things that recipes accomplish, a long list that includes teaching, inspiring, providing comfort, sharing family history, celebrating, showcasing particular ingredients. So my ears perked up when Evan asked if recipes have a role to play in expressing hospitality.
I hadn’t thought about recipes in quite the way Priya so beautifully framed them as an act of generosity, that “this way of collapsing distance, collapsing difference, that recipes afford us is one of most precious forms of exchange that we have,” as she said. I will be reading her book soon to learn more about how recipes weave into her book’s content, perhaps for more discussion in a future post. Where this notion does intersect a bit with what I consider to be good recipe-writing practice is thinking about the reader, the home cook who’ll be using the recipe. Despite the fact that I’ve already said recipes can accomplish a great many things, the one prime goal of ALL recipes I believe is this: giving the home cook every opportunity to succeed.
I love this lens of considering the recipe as a reflection of generosity. I think recipe writers can achieve this by framing their approach to a recipe’s content as “what does the reader need from me to succeed?” rather than “how can I showcase my delicious creation?” It may seem a subtle distinction, but it serves as a reminder to go beyond just telling the bare minimum of recipe steps: fill in gaps, share the gestures between the formal steps (something cooling or drying on towels before you proceed), provide some lessons, hints and encouragement. Beyond just so-many-minutes to cook sugar for a caramel, maybe add “Don’t be tempted to step away from the stove for a moment, the caramel can overcook and burn quickly.” Unless you’re certain all those using the recipe will know what ‘blanching’ means, take the couple extra sentences to explain the specific steps. Echo one of the tenants of great hospitality, anticipate the needs of your guest (reader); answer their questions and calm their concerns before they have a chance to express them. Be generous with your knowledge and experience.
So thanks to this podcast and Priya Basil’s insights, I’m adding “generosity” to that list of the many fabulous attributes recipes have. Attributes that really only come through when recipes are thoughtfully crafted to begin with. The unrealized potential of poorly written recipes is what’s driving my new endeavors, which I outline here. Recipes that are well written have so very much to offer, beyond just that meal that’s set on the table. Here’s to maximizing the potential of recipes.