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On Recipe Writing
as personal narrative—and as a food writing trap.
The following, before the asterisk, is an abridged version of the talk I gave at the Stealing Recipes Symposium at Indiana University in late April, where I also gave a recipe development workshop. I previously published a travelogue about the trip.
Writing recipes means rarely knowing whether you’re stealing or not. Cooking is the sum of every bite we’ve ever taken informing our palates. And so one must ask, where does inspiration end and the need for citation begin? How can you cite every meal, every spice, every scent and experience that has influenced the way you eat and the way you want to eat? If you can’t—and you can’t—where do these come into recipe development and the way we write headnotes? It’s in the singular voice of the recipe writer.
I’m going to return to my kitchen in San Juan, Puerto Rico, after this conference and try to make a version of my mom’s arroz con pollo with jackfruit. I’m a vegetarian and haven’t eaten meat in over a decade. I’ve never eaten arroz con jackfruit, but I remember the sazón-tinted yellow rice, the frozen peas, and the tender meat, all fragrant with sofrito, that I grew up eating and recently watched my mom make again, inspiring me. I’m going to reference, in my development of this recipe, my mother’s cooking, my nostalgia, Instagram videos of women making arroz con pollo, and the ways in which I’m taking lessons from a Dishoom recipe for jackfruit biryani to influence how I flavor my chosen chicken substitute. I’m going to talk about why I’m using gandules, or pigeon peas, rather than the English peas of my mother. The reason will be—yes, they’re local, and also that I’ve had a bag of them in the freezer for months, so they will go into my Dutch oven.
These are the biographical and explanatory headnotes so bemoaned on social media, with people seeking free recipes begging writers to “get to the recipe.” But these are the recipes: The personal narrative is inextricable from the suggested amounts of salt. The narrative is where the voice comes in, providing as much citation and background as possible, to establish that this recipe hasn’t emerged from a void—could not have emerged from nowhere, has a range of influences and inspirations, and is indeed the product of this person’s experience in their kitchen. Why cook a recipe if you don’t understand the writer’s appetite?
Recipe writing is, I’d argue, a form of embodied writing, which “seeks to reveal the lived experience of the body by portraying in words the finely textured experience of the body and evoking sympathetic resonance in readers.” Melissa Febos writes in Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative, that “embodied writing is not in opposition to political writing.” In this way, I see those who practice a form of recipe writing that is personal, that makes clear their positionality, that perhaps does not shy away from the politics of that positionality, as a type of personal narrative that is as significant as any other literature.
“Cooking often hovers at the fringes of serious thought,” writes Rebecca May Johnson in Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen, in which she writes of making one recipe for tomato sauce over and over as a performance, chronicling the changes in her hair, city, and life and how these things influence changes in the way she makes the recipe. Her mood is noted: anxiety leads to overheating. “As I have cooked the recipe I learnt how to make and unmake my body,” she writes, “finding its edges, contours and surfaces and making new ones.”
Reading Johnson, I think of Lisa Heldke writing in “Recipes for Theory Making” in 1988, that cooking “has never really been the subject of philosophical consideration,” and that one reason for this is that it’s “women’s activity.” Johnson, in Small Fires, has plunged fully into the notion that cooking is a worthwhile means of inquiry into the nature of repetition, into the nature of how a recipe becomes part of a person, a life, a body. “Before the recipe was a text it was written by the body,” she writes. “It was cooked.”
I’ve been the most inspired in recipe and domestic writing by Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen because of the ways the recipes emerge from her stories, from her narratives. The recipes almost burst through—the narrative makes them necessary. The telling of stories as prelude to recipes, which are often in her books quite bare-bones in their instruction, allow citation and inspiration to emerge naturally.
I think, looking at Johnson, Heldke, and Colwin, that it is radical to insist upon the significance of the writing, the body, and the philosophy of a recipe in a cultural situation where recipes are more accessible than ever and many readers feel entitled to them. The food writer’s dreaded commenter on social media is the one who asks, “Recipe?” In somewhat of a response, Eater staff writer and owner of the popular account @crispyegg420 Bettina Makalintal has called her Instagram a “cooking archive,” where there are “no recipes just vibes.” This insistence leaves space for inspiration, not instruction; in inspiring rather than instructing, Makalintal allows the reader to rummage in their own kitchen, to follow their own movements and palate toward a meal. In this way, vibes are a recipe, even if a very loose one.
To insist that a recipe is more than a list of ingredients and a set of instructions is to assert the significance of cooking as thinking and recipe development as labor—labor and thinking done by the body and the mind, both as significant to its creation as all the eating and experience that has led to the moment of inspiration. Consider Nigel Slater, the British author of numerous cookbooks, including most recently A Cook’s Book. He calls himself “a writer who cooks.”
“Food is just part of the ebb and flow of my life,” he writes in the introduction to this latest tome. “It is both a pleasure and a privilege, but not all-consuming. As I see it, making something nice to eat should not be an obsession, it should simply be part and parcel of everyday living.”
From Johnson’s use of one simple tomato sauce as the basis of an epic to Colwin’s insistence that there’s no such thing as a bad potato salad to Slater’s assertion that a nice, simple meal should simply be part of the flow of life to Tamar Adler, in The Everlasting Meal Cookbook, noting that not everything one eats needs to be the best meal of their life—there seems to be a rejection of the ways in which recipes have become extensively test-kitchened and owned in our current day and age by media brands. A rejection of voiceless recipes—these are needed, of course; they form a foundation. But they don’t have to be the only way. There is a different kind of recipe writing that privileges intimacy over authority. (I’ve written before about domestic writing.)
Independent publishing has allowed for more voice and specificity in recipe writing, breaking through the false ideas proffered by big outlets that everyone is living in the same season with the same access. If the writing is good, a recipe is worthwhile whether one has the ingredients to cook it or not, and the specificity of indie recipe writers means room for exploring the origins of their inspiration. These are recipe writers doing this work within their domestic labor and creative labor, showing the way they intermingle.
Independent publishing has also removed a level of gatekeeping that would keep many folks from publishing domestic writing and more specific recipes: The lack of diversity in this space in traditional publishing is quite clear. Indie recipe developers are changing that, doing something that bridges an old style of recipe writing (fewer instructions, notes on seasonality, chronicled by Adler in this wonderful essay I refer to often) with a newer, more fine-pointed approach.
Teresa Finney, the Atlanta-based baker of At Heart Panaderia and its connected Patreon account, allows her local seasons to dictate her recipes. There is no sense that these need to be relevant to all climates—because how could they be? She makes a golden beet cake and strawberry-pink peppercorn jam because local produce creates what is abundant in her kitchen. Krystal Mack, a Baltimore-based interdisciplinary artist, writes similarly seasonally specific recipes often based on foraged ingredients. Recent recipes include a set of ways to use tulips, from tarte tatin to vodka to salty tulip sugar. On Substack, Kate Ray of Soft Leaves writes a bagel recipe specifically for making with kids, as well as a martini-inspired babka with orange marmalade and olive tapenade. Ria Elciario at Kitchen Gems publishes chickpea toast recipes and omelets inspired by her mother to be served with Filipino condiments, and also writes candidly of forcing herself to cook as a way of spending less money. Marian Bull writes about why she enjoys chia pudding, and in the next newsletter, issues a salt correction that has been crowd-sourced from her readers. This is all casual and intimate, not pronounced by an arbiter of taste.
These approaches to recipe writing have the power, I believe, to change how people view food writing—to perhaps get them to stop asking “Recipe?” in comments and follow their own instincts.
I think if we take recipe writing seriously as writing, if we approach cooking as both the stuff of everyday and a space of serious inquiry, there is less room for theft. There will be too much life, too much specificity, too much mess and joy and sorrow and anxiety. If the singular palate is privileged, if recipes are simply starting points of inspiration, if constellations of influence are written, how can a recipe be stolen? It is the product of a certain experience, a certain body.
The singularity of voice, of every body, of every geographic location and approach allows recipe writing to move away from authority and ownership, towards a way of sharing perspective, experience, and insight. Prioritizing the voice means prioritizing the writing. And don’t we all want to read something good as much as we want to eat something delicious?
I have much more to write about embodied writing and the significance of the “I,” as well as how recipe writing is a form of personal narrative. But I also find recipe writing to be a bit of a trap for food writers, a trap that exists because of patriarchy and the broader cultural insistence that food isn’t serious. In Small Fires, Johnson enacts a way out of that trap—that’s one book, though, one writer.
I’ve published recipes intermittently in the eight years that I’ve been writing about food. It was expected, and I understand the expectation that a food writer would be capable of writing a recipe. It was never my bread and butter, nor my passion, just another aspect of the work. While I ended up a food writer because I had been a vegan baker (as well as a copy editor and occasional book reviewer), I wasn’t compelled by an urge to see other people make my recipes.
Yet many people have asked me, or have simply assumed, that my forthcoming book is a cookbook. They’ve asked whether I intended to include recipes in it. Publishing recipes regularly has confused people about my goals, my purpose. It was strange, but also not so strange at all: It seemed rooted in misogyny, of course, and dismissive of food writing generally, and I’ve learned over time not to expect even people who claim to want to talk to you about your work to have ever actually read your work. But it has continued to nag at me: Am I more or less a food writer without the recipes? Of whom are recipes expected? Why are recipes seemingly regarded as the “thing” that makes food writing worthwhile as labor?
I cannot dedicate as much of my time to recipe development as someone for whom recipe development is their whole work, and I don’t want recipe development to be my life. Rather, I prefer when recipes emerge to me through life.
While I will continue to pursue this embodied approach to recipe writing, to domestic writing, to recipe writing that bursts forth from my daily cooking, I think I wrote this talk as a way to motivate myself, to state that the way I wish to write recipes is a valid way to do so, even if the market is iffy on it.
I write this epilogue, of sorts, as a way to state that food writers are more than the sum of their recipes, and food deserves to be engaged with beyond mere consumption. I want to believe that recipes, like cooking, can be just another part of the ebb and flow of a life. This is also why I’m launching monthly interviews with cookbook authors, to talk about how the work fits into life.
This Friday sees the release of the first From the Kitchen Podcast featuring Abi Balingit, author of Mayumu: Filipino American Desserts Remixed. If you’ve never listened to one of the (over 100!) interviews I’ve done, check out the archive.
I’m still not allowed to say anything about exciting things, but in the interim: I was interviewed by German newspaper Die Zeit about culinary tourism. It’s in German and behind a paywall, but perhaps those things do not deter you!
I was also on the Taste podcast with Matt Rodbard! I think it’s a very good interview, with the caveat that I don’t call myself an academic!
Reminder that my book is out on August 15! Pre-order No Meat Required: The Cultural History & Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating.
I graded my culinary tourism class’s final projects. Bittersweet, after spending almost a year in preparation for and then teaching this class. Scorpio eclipse well-timed for a closure, and I’m ready to move onto my next big project (whatever that is—if you know, please reach out! I’m definitely on the market for assignments).
I made Buffalo tofu and a Greek yogurt “ranch,” following my recent interest in this sauce. I just blended yogurt with parsley, dill, onion and garlic powder, salt, and some vinegar. It was fabulous, and I think I’ll soon write up a little guide for it, because I’ve been eating it with tofu, okra, cabbage—everything! Those up there are cardamom-rose Madeleines. Find the recipe here!