Don’t bury the recipe
About ten years ago a new way of presenting recipes online emerged. We’ve all seen these things, long photo essays explaining every step of a recipe long before any recipe appears. In many, even after you scroll through all this crap, you still have to click through to another page to get to the recipe, an obvious attempt to build extra page views (I’m looking at you Serious Eats). This format was interesting for about five minutes before it became unbelievably irritating. Yet it dominates food writing these days.
When I search for recipe ideas I want to see the recipes, not a slide show. And I want to read something interesting about the author’s experience with the discovery and evolution of the dish. Food and eating are existential experiences shared by every creature on the planet. Nearly every dish I’ve made has some kind of story behind it. The place I first had it, the person who made it, my companions, loves, losses, and mistakes. Write that backstory.
Olfactory memory generators
Smells generate memories. You might walk into a bakery while traveling and suddenly remember a friend’s Italian immigrant mother’s bread, the first good bread you ever ate. In a millisecond an entire forgotten moment from years earlier emerges as whole cloth.
When we write about food, we might attempt to conjure up something similar, a memory forgotten but incredibly important. The best food writers understand that this is what food writing is about, the underlying story of a moment, a memory, a person. The legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher was the master at this. Hemingway called her one of the greatest writers he had encountered. Not the greatest food writer, a great writer, period. If she had been male, she may have been up there with the great ones of the twentieth century. For me she is.
A note about Fisher: she wrote an entire book about oysters, Consider the Oyster. While it is ostensibly about shellfish, the underlying story is about the gradual death of her true love from a debilitating disease. A great example of great food writing.
Great food writers are great writers first. And great cooks always have a story behind their food. The extraordinary explosion of food tv is based on these notions. Jacques Pepin remembering his mother feeding him as a child with simple Provençal peasant food. Julia Child in Paris fighting to get the same culinary education as men, men who tried to relegate her to classes designed for bored expatriate housewives.
Hemingway himself had an uncanny ability to evoke time and place through descriptions of food and drink. In A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his early days in Paris, we can feel his hunger and his empty pockets and stomach. And, when he gets a little money, his pleasure in a sausage and warm French potato salad dripping with fragrant olive oil. Or the curl of a raw, still alive oyster as he squeezes a lemon over it and downs its brinyness with an ice cold martini. Just writing that makes me want it now.
And that is the key to great food writing. It should make the reader hunger for both the food and the memory it is connected to. I love it when I write about something as ubiquitous as pizza and commenters are driven to write about how much they want it. That is a visceral response, which should be the goal of any writing. It is not enough to simply inform.
And now, a diatribe about recipes
Which brings me to the actionable item in any food writing, the recipe. Don’t bury it at the end of a long process explanation. Or behind another click. Either put it up front or incorporate it into your story. I don’t need the recipe for Hemingway’s warm French potato salad- he gives it to me in a few sentences. Boiled potatoes, a little onion, garlic, and a fruity olive oil laced with mustard and doused with chopped parsley. I can taste it.
If your dish requires a recipe, and many do, put it upfront and then tell the story. Why? Because it gives the reader context, and if she is like me, she wants to see the recipe first and have a picture of it in her head.
In cases where a recipe is complex or has a technique or ingredient that is critical, a classic formal recipe must be included. Recipe writers, and yes, that is a thing, can tell immediately if there is something wrong with a recipe, something left out or that sounds incorrect. You have to test and double check your accuracy.
Here’s an example: My friend bought an eleven pound pork shoulder and had the butcher coarsely grind it for sausage making. A lot of meat. She used a Mario Batali sausage recipe from one of his cookbooks, a recipe that had a typo about how much salt to use. When she cooked a bit off to taste the sausage seasoning, it was way too salty to eat. The only solution was to get another pork shoulder and combine the two, meaning she ended up with 22 pounds of sausage because a cookbook editor or recipe writer screwed up.
Finally, my own story
When I was a teenager I liked to cook and I had an obsession with expatriate writers in Paris in the 1920s and 30s, hence my Hemingway stories. But I didn’t know what I was doing. So my father, in his infinite wisdom bought me a copy of Julia Childs’ Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol 1. I then proceeded to cook my way through the entire book, forcing my family to endure my mistakes and me to wander around town in search of then exotic ingredients.
That experience made me into an expert cookbook reader and a decent home cook. It was a great basis to start with because the recipes in Mastering are the best you will find, the gold standard. She hits the why and how and answers the most basic beginner questions without talking down to the reader.
An interesting side effect of my experience was gaining the ability to very quickly spot a flawed recipe. Maybe it has too many hard to find ingredients or sloppiness about quantities and things like temperature. And once you spot this, the entire work of that writer is suspect, probably forever. Don’t be that guy.
I only recently started writing about food and cooking, though I’ve been reading about it and cooking for many years. During Covid, cooking became one of our principal activities and we were driven to find interesting recipes to expand the repertoire. With time on my hands and that cooking obsession, I found myself writing about food and eating, simply for the pleasure of it. Sometimes just a straight recipe but more often a piece about the food and the context of the cooking experience. Those pieces are by far the more interesting ones for a writer. And now I appreciate great food writing more than ever.