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What’s in a recipe

December 19, 2009

This post is not about pies per se, although with Thanksgiving behind us and Christmas coming, I’ve certainly had reason to think about them. It’s a particular pie recipe I’m interested in—one that recently inspired my curiosity about the way recipes are and have been written. Since the Middle Ages, recipes have evolved from mere lists of ingredients to elaborate how-to’s written by authors eager to tell us what mirepoix is, and to hold our hands through the seventeen steps for making some elaborate dish or other. At this point, we have expectations about the reliability of recipes, and about what they’ll assume of us. But looking at old recipes is a reminder of how much our relationship to them has changed.

The pie I made for Thanksgiving was a picture of rustic simplicity as it cooled in my mother’s backyard, its golden filling and modest crimped edges set off against a weathered wooden table. It looked like what it was: pumpkin and spices baked in a pastry shell. But the modern recipe I used didn’t reflect that simplicity in quite the way Sarah Josepha Hale’s 1839 recipe from The Good Housekeeper does:

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Stew the pumpkin dry, and make it like squash pie [with milk, sugar, and five eggs per quart of milk], only season rather higher. In the country, where this real yankee pie is prepared in perfection, ginger is almost always used with other spices. There too, part cream instead of milk is mixed with the pumpkin, which gives it a richer flavor.

Roll the paste rather thicker than for fruit pies, as there is only one crust. If the pie is large and deep it will require to bake an hour in a brisk oven. (Dover edition, 1996, pg.84)

*   *   *

A crust “thicker than for fruit pies”; a seasoning “higher” than for squash pies: these are gestures, so much described relative to other known recipes, with a wealth of tradition and savoir-faire implied in what’s left out.

By the late sixteenth century, there was a new kind of British cookbook being written for the “huswife” rather than the professional cook (see Kate Colquhoun’s Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking, Ch.7), but many recipes were still awash in vagueness regarding proportions and timing. Hale’s recipe shows traces of that (e.g. How long do you bake it if it isn’t large and deep?). Part of the Elizabethan huswife’s role was to know the “secrets of cookerie,” and here Hale assumes her American “good housekeeper” will know what she means by her comparisons and gestures.

These recipes were for those already in the know. Even with the Dover editor’s helpful bracketed note about what it meant to make a pie “like a squash pie,” I would have to be living in that world of shared knowledge, privy to that repertoire of recipes, to feel completely at ease with the instructions. In that sense, the recipe speaks to and for a particular community of cooks.

One hundred years later, there’s a very different kind of intimacy in M. F. K. Fisher’s food writing. Hers is a conversational intimacy, not based necessarily on shared knowledge.  In her chapter “How to Comfort Sorrow” in the collection How to Cook a Wolf, she tells us about an odd sort of cake:
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“Another good cake, to eat plain with coffee, or frosted with a covering of cream cheese and powered sugar and a little rum if possible, is

3 tablespoons butter or shortening
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon soda
1 can tomato soup
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg, ginger, cloves, mixed
1 ½ cups raisins, nuts, chopped figs, what you will

Cream butter, add the sugar, and blend thoroughly. Add the soda to the soup, stirring well, and add this alternately to the first mixture with the flour and spices sifted together. Stir well, and bake in a pan or loaf-tin at 325°.

This is a pleasant cake, which keeps well and puzzles people who ask what kind it is. It can be made in a moderate over while you are cooking other things, which is always sensible and makes you feel rather noble, in itself a small but valuable pleasure.”
*   *   *

We have more precision here, clearly. But what draws us in is the voice. Fisher’s “what you will” in the ingredients list is deliciously nonchalant; and the description that follows situates us as everyday cooks, with thoughts and feelings and social interactions surrounding our cooking. The instructions are for us, not because they draw on shared skill, but because they evoke our ethical judgment, our sensibilities. The sense of community comes from the fact that we feel Fisher is speaking to us.

Fisher’s recipes are certainly not the main point of her writing, but they are always a pleasure to read. In her writing she is absolutely present, impossibly confident, often cavalier—not always rigorous in the precision, for example, of references or sources. This, rather than in the recipes, is where we get broad gestures. And yet the effect is not sloppy; there’s precision of a different sort. Her outrageousness is constrained by decorum and deliberateness—by the logic and sensitivity of the stories she is embroidering around the recipes; by the form of the sentences themselves, which have a music that seems a reflection both of her and of her time.

And where are we with recipes now? We have the likes of Martha Stewart, who patiently leads us through recipes assuming nothing but our eagerness to learn. It seems telling that one of her latest books is Martha Stewart’s Cooking School: Lessons and Recipes for the Home Cook, which teaches fundamentals with grace and absolute transparency (aided by an amazing number of step-by-step photos—another recent addition to the recipe world). Or we have writers like Alton Brown, leading us through a rollicking but impeccably researched crash course in the science of baking, even as he lays out his recipe for perfect angel food cake. This kind of explicit teaching and contextualizing is a far cry from medieval ingredient lists with maybe a scanty instruction to season “enough.”

As I gather recipes for my holiday baking, I’ll be thinking about how they’re written. And while my biscotti recipe might give me creative license to throw in a little this or that on a whim, I know I’ll be happy for sub-steps, footnotes and 1/8 teaspoon measurements if I attempt a bûche de Noël.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. patty permalink
    December 20, 2009 2:10 pm

    I’d like to try the Tomatoe Soup Cake to see if it’s like the delicious one I remember from my childhood. My Autie Sara, the sister of Emma Babcock and the aunt of Helen Dalrymple, came from the East Coast to stay with us for a year during the Depression in 1932. She made many tomatoe soup cakes over the year, and my sister Joy and I would have a piece when we got home from school. It was unfrosted and I remember it had raisins and nuts in it. She must have used Cambells Soup because I remember going to the corner store – Goehles (?)Market- to get Cambells Tomatoe Soup for my mother. The pie looks good enough to eat right now. Patty

  2. January 30, 2010 6:09 pm


    Sorry. I’ll try to contain my enthusiasm.

    But, yes, it is interesting how the community of cooks and their expectations of themselves and each other has grown and changed. Even simply going back two generations, cooking with my grandmothers, I find they don’t look at recipes in the same way I might. My dad’s mom cooks dishes passed down my her Oklahoma foremothers or gathered in her new California home, bean soup and apple butter. My aunt conjures her delicious meals out of gourmet cooking magazines and the inspirations of farmer’s markets. And the another new wrinkle is added to the evolving spectrum: the internet recipe, with its reviews, edits, and sheer immensity of variations. Nowadays, a great deal of my cooking comes from internet sources; not one recipe, but the delightful amalgam of an infinity of peanut butter cookie or babaghanoush or paella recipes that I mix and match and edit and play with to my heart’s content. But even for those modern cooks without my desire to play with my food, the internet shows a kind of leveling of the playing field. With such diversity and opportunity, there’s a recipe out there for every kind of cook. A newcomer to the great culinary adventure can simply call up Google to find out what “baste,” “mince,” “emulsify” pertains to. Isn’t it exciting?

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