Cooks read and follow recipes, part of a common and daily ritual of eating. But have you ever tried writing a recipe? It's not as easy as it looks and may be as challenging as writing a great story or poem. But unlike literature, bad writing results in a bad meal and unhappy (and possibly hungry) readers — the disappointment is physical.
So when an editor asked if we'd write a peach cookbook, I was thrilled to work in a new genre, hoping to include stories and essays and create a literary cookbook. But I'm not a cook, the heavy lifting of creating recipes would be the responsibility of my wife, Marcy, and our daughter, Nikiko.
One of the first questions to ask while conceptualizing the book was: who is the target audience? Marcy and Nikiko were faced with a simple but challenging issue: are these recipes for the everyday cook or a skilled gourmet? They chose the everyday: the home cook, aiming for a sweet spot between simplicity and complexity. (For full disclosure, I'm a lousy cook — and I stuck to helping and cleaning in the kitchen.)
Audience also enters into the question of ingredients. Do the recipes require the cook to run out to Whole Foods to search for a special herb? Do the recipes assume access to higher end equipment? And how does that mirror the values of the recipe writer? For example, what tools does the typical cook have? Do you write a recipe that requires a Dutch oven or dough hooks or include an oblique reference to a KitchenAid? Again, a moment of values clarification: this cookbook has the feel of a working-class hand-mixer-and-blender-kitchen pedigree.
Since this was a book about peaches, we quickly realized that on the farm, we're spoiled by access to the ripest, softest and best peaches. But the recipes needed to be written with "the typical" in mind, with allowances — such as sweetness and firmness — embedded in instructions. Not all peaches are created equally.
A book publisher will ask writers to fill out an author questionnaire early in the process. They will ask: what inspired you to write this book? The answers are used by marketing, but also serve as a type of values clarification for the writer. Who would have thought recipe writing would force you to look inward? We questioned what kind of family and farm would be reflected in this book.
Others may think of recipes as a simple matter of writing directions, a linear routine, a natural order of progression. But more and more, cookbooks are literary — the process involves more than meets the eye.
Writing a recipe has three parts: the headnote/introductory passage, the ingredient list and the instructions or method. All require precise language and double and triple checking. Obviously confusing teaspoon and tablespoon makes a huge difference, but so does the sequencing of instructions. It's all part of the process and movement within a recipe.
Nikiko thinks of this as performance, as if a cook dances in a kitchen. Cooking is physical, the movement part of the recipe. The stage directions have to be written like poetry. Instructions must be brief, succinct and direct. Every word counts with the recipe writer assuming full responsibility for the outcome. Timing, sequence, responding to conditions (hard boil, simmer, sauté) involve complicated choreography. An engaged cook will spin and twist, whip and flip, measure and dump, knead and stir, all active exercises leading to a seeming simple crescendo: dinner's ready.
Many cookbooks now are embedded with story in the form of headnotes. The best recipe writers have mastered the art of the very, very short story. In a single sentence or paragraph, an anecdote is shared, a family secret disclosed, the wisdom of a cooking lesson taught, a sense of place (the origins of a favorite recipe) conveyed. Add in serving suggestions along with a message of inspiration and encouragement. Headnotes give an opportunity to transform recipes from blueprints to stories. Recipes then go beyond food: they grow into narratives with meaning.
A great recipe exposes the author. Today's cookbooks are more ethnographic and autobiographical. Readers want more than the formula for a great peach pie, they want to know the back story of your peach pie.
During the process of writing a cookbook, we heard that great chefs are sometimes terrible at writing recipes. They can expertly create fantastic meals, but they can't always write down what they do. They constantly self-correct while they cook. Crucial details are often left out of the recipe.
The final step of recipe testing becomes a challenge. Not everyone can provide critical feedback, such as disclosing confusing directions or sharing gritty and grisly outcomes. I'd struggle with this phase too — imagine friends becoming critics, reviewers and pundits judging my every detail. My recipe writing would jeopardize friendships.
Marcy and Nikiko began with the vision that everyone can cook and they wanted to share the farm and our experience with peaches. They believed in the sacred act of cooking: the feeding of the body, mind and soul. All in a recipe.