Form Follows Food

I’m finishing a lazy weekend with a very lazy sunday morning. I’m on the couch, with a cup of medium strong coffee (Philippe chided me for letting it get too strong again yesterday– and if a Frenchman says your coffee is too strong you must take him seriously if you hope to keep your teeth into old age). And I’m thinking about my great passion, food.

I’m reading With Bold Knife and Fork by that great lady of food writing, M.F.K. Fisher. Her first essay, Anatomy of a Recipe strikes me as perfect introductory reading for any information design class. In it, she follows the development of the recipe from early primitive descriptive passages, such as this one from Athenaeus, an ancient greek writer:

“Take some nuts and some almonds, and also a poppy. Roast this last with great care, and then take the seed and pound it in a clean mortar; then, adding fruits, beat them up with boiled honey, putting in plenty of black pepper, and make the whole into a soft mass…”

Next Fisher follows the gradual improvements made to recipe writing to arrive at their current form: explicitly stating assumptions (such as including the fact one requires a crust for herring pie), listing exact amounts (teaspoons, not pinches and shakes), temperature and cooking time (how hot is a hot oven, and when does “done” occur?), and most subtle but perhaps most important, suggesting an efficient order for the cooking process (a delicate sauce might be ruined as one suddenly realized mid-recipe one had to stop and chop half a pound of nuts or separate ten eggs.)

Fisher insists on key elements of a recipe:

  • name of recipe
  • ingredients, which must include exact amounts
  • method, which must include precise temperatures and times.

She then finishes the essay with a rewrite of a recipe for a bit of witchcraft into a modern format:

“Name:              To drive a woman crazy

Ingredients:   1 or more nutmegs, ground
1 left shoe, of a woman

Method:         Sprinkle a small amount of nutmeg on left shoe every night at midnight, until desired results are obtained with woman.”

I understand her frustration with the tomes left to her by grandmothers– women who often left out the secret ingredient for their “famous casserole surprise”, who assumed you would never use flour without sifting it, who knew when a cake was done, and who knew exactly what clarified butter was (and how to clarify it!) They knew, but they did not tell.

I certainly can understand the pain she might have felt as she cracked open Escoffier to refine her art, only to read “Poach the fillets of sole, folded, in the oyster liquor strained through cheesecloth, and a piece of butter as large as a walnut.” How many fillets? Folded how? where does the butter come in? (and do I shape the butter into a walnut ball? Escoffier clearly wasn’t dealing with rectangles of butter).

Thirty-plus years after she wrote the essay, we see her preferred recipe format used regularly: look at the recipe Fresh Tomato Gazpacho as found on Epicurious. It includes ingrediants precisely measured, a good method for preparation and even how many people it will serve (a blessed addition!). Her dream format is now the standard.

I admit that in my personal life, I rarely follow this format: compare my recipe for gazpacho on my personal foodblog. Mine is done in what I suppose could be considered a grandmotherly way and requires you know a puree from purina, while Epicurious’s version is bullet proof. But my blog is for me to store recipes and share with family and friends, not for posterity.

Are these two forms the only ones? Is the Epicurious format vastly superior to the grandmother format? I wonder.

My gazpacho recipe was written for my friend Landy, who cooks extremely well. I imagined him skimming through the description, mentally adding in and removing ingredients then walking into the kitchen and reinventing the entire thing. My husband does this, and so now do I. If I want to make tomato soup, I look up about five recipes to get a feeling for the core rules, then head to the kitchen to improvise.

Almost all cookbooks treat the chef as an incompetent idiot or a rocket scientist dealing with delicate flammables– precision is considered critical in both the art of cooking as well as the science of baking. A stew is utterly forgiving of almost any sort of carelessness you give the recipe as long as you cook it long enough, while bread is likely to betray you if you live in the wrong climate or at the wrong altitude. Still, cookbooks typically treat them both as holy rituals. A modern cook, unless taught by a mother or father how to wing it, is stuck following the instructions. And then is helpless when it’s seven at night and all she has in the house is can of tomatoes, some mushrooms and a frozen fillet of sole and she can’t find a recipe matching these ingredients. My father was an excellent cook and I grew up watching him measure with a cupped palm, as his mother had done before him, but most of my friend’s parents fed them with KFC and TV dinners. And they are stuck now as they look for alternatives.

Pre-made meals are full of mysterious chemicals that bloat the country’s children like party balloons. But recipes in the sunday paper by local restaurant chefs requires hours of cooking and exotic ingredients. A home cook facing a scarcity of harissa or turbot at the local grocery store may not know that chili flakes and sole will get him through. Can you blame him if he throws up his hands and sticks a Stouffer’s in the oven?

No wonder we eat regularly at McDonald’s, and treat cooking as a formal (and potentially dying) art, to be done only when menaced by a potluck dinner.

So to Fisher’s insistence on a formal recipe format, I’d like to request the consideration of what I think is the critical last section of a recipe for the unknown audience: variations. Epicurious gets this from the user comments.

From the gazpacho recipe:
“I used to make this dish but added sliced black olives. This is a favorite summer dish.”
“My only adjustments have been to use 1/2 yellow and 1/2 red tomatoes, increase the cucumber to 2 regular (not english, but from the farmer’s market), and cut down on the bread. Yum!”

Since a cookbook is not as interactive as a website, it is on the author’s shoulders to make sure the reader knows what is sacrosanct and what is not. Julia Child is the master of this. The Way to Cook teaches the reader key base recipes, then includes several variations. Having mastered sautéing chicken, I’ve since made Sauteed Chicken Piperade, Provençal and Chicken Marengo, and the other night boldly invented a sesame chicken risotto based on this same base recipe.

I’m also saddened by another aspect of the rational recipe. Its soulessness. A recipe with humanity allows the cook to bond with the writer. Asides, hints even anecdotes can help a novice cook find a chef with whom she is simpatico. A chef whose taste matches the novice’s, who provide a guide to the delights of the kitchen. It’s not enough to learn to cook; one must learn to delight in cooking or McDonald’s siren call of convenience will win.

A good recipe should be precise, but also let the cook know when precision is not necessary. It should not only be a set of instructions, but also a source of inspiration. The recipe should consider its audience, both past and present. And finally a great recipe should also give you a feeling for the chef who wrote it.

And so I stopped and put down my coffee. I got hungry, with all this food reading. And I made a simple tartine (means toast, or toast with something or another on it.) With easter providing a surfeit of boiled eggs, perhaps some of you may find it useful.

Breakfast Tartine
2-3 boiled eggs
2 pieces of bread
Grated cheese (I use Trader Joe’s Mediterranean blend, which is a mix of provolone, fontina and kasseri, but I’m guessing jack, mozzarella, or parmesan would be good)
Herb de Provence (or dried basil and thyme), salt, pepper

Turn on oven to “broil.” Toast bread lightly, either in the oven or in a toaster. Put the toast on a cookie sheet, and butter toast lightly. Sprinkle toast with salt and pepper. Take about a half teaspoon of your dried herbs, and rub them between your palms to break and release their flavor. Sprinkle generously on the buttered toast.

Find the sharpest knife in your kitchen, and slice eggs, starting with the fat end and moving toward the tip. Wipe blade every few cuts to remove yolk, or you won’t get clean slices (this is why an egg slicer is useful, I imagine.) Arrange in a single layer on the toasts. Sprinkle very generously with grated cheese. Put in broiler until cheese on top is brown and bubbly.



Add Yours
  1. 1
    dave p.

    So if we think of the recipe as a sort of interface, how do we make it appropriate for both novices and experts? I’ve always been in favor of being explicit in what needs to be used and what needs to be done, but that’s because I’m not much of a cook and have never had much luck winging it, but I see your point about leaving room to experiment. Is it possible to make a recipe “speak” to both kinds of audience?

  2. 2

    There’s a cookbook I read a while ago — unfortunately the title of it escapes me — that offered what I thought was an interesting solution to the “recipe usability” problem. It had a precise, simplified “core” recipe for a dish (for example, fried rice), followed by pages of variations on the basic dish, information on substitutions, and so forth. So the reader could find and use the basic info very quickly and easily, or take more time and explore more deeply as desired. I find this a great way to make a recipe usable to both novice and veteran.

  3. 4
    andrew bonamici

    One of my favorite food writers is Elizabeth David. The soul factor is very high & the quality of the writing excellent. If the recipes in these books seem vague by modern standards, consider that watercolors are also vague if compared to an architectural blueprint. Here is a Pan Bagnat recipe from her Summer Cooking (Museum Press, 1955):
    PAN BAGNA 1 (Recipe from From La Cuisine à Nice, H. Heyraud). Pan Bagna is simply a slice of pain de ménage moistened with good Niçois olive oil (sometimes the bread is rubbed with garlic) covered with fillets of anchovy, slices of tomatoes, capers and gherkins; vinegar is optional. It is rare that a game of boules in the country (and everyone knows how addicted the Niçois are to this sport) comes to an end without having been interrupted for a few bottles of Bellet and a Pan Bagna.

    last thought: Precision is a must for pastries, & Maida Heatter’s dessert cookbooks successfully combine detailed instructions with soul.

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