Kate Lebo on Making and Remaking Recipes On and Off the Page
“Writing a recipe and reading a recipe are both acts of translation.”
We seek a certain kind of writing when we want to be told what to do. Self-help manuals, policy papers, and sermons come to mind. While I am suspicious of art that tells me what to feel or believe, I love to crack a cookbook, relax that defensive crouch, and follow along.
My favorite recipes are the ones that suggest the lived life behind the words—the messiness and rebellion of actual ingredients and kitchens and moods, the parts that introduce error, the parts that transcend the whole. This lyricism only works if the recipe’s instructions are also pedantic and precise.
This is just another way to talk about form.
To borrow from the way Terrance Hayes talks about poetry, the recipe is a box. It gives the act of cooking a shape on the page; that page becomes a vessel that carries the act of cooking forward in time to another cook. The restrictions of this box can become opportunities, but it must have those restrictions. If a recipe for soup can also be a recipe for pie, all I’ve made is a mess.
The necessary strictness of a recipe will invite argument. Certain readers, even though they want instructions, won’t let you tell them what to do. Once they get going on the recipe, they will shove it aside and follow their own whims.
I’m that “certain reader,” too. I love recipes and I love to argue with them. I love following them only so far and no further. When I start to disobey is where life leaks in. The dish changes according to what I actually have in my pantry and what my attention and patience will allow. In the kitchen I am less afraid to fail. I am willful. I steal. I take shortcuts and devote myself to ridiculous, labor-intensive details. I want to be influenced and I want to take credit. I want to put my stamp on a dish and call it mine. This is probably what led me to write recipes in the first place.
In 2017, Sam Ligon and I FedExed the marked-up print-out of Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter & Booze to our publisher. We were editing an anthology that grew out of a reading series where the priorities were pie, whiskey, and writing—in that order. The pie recipes were my job, concluding each section (eight in all), halting the narrative flow with their sweet but entirely technical demands.
It was our last chance to make corrections to the manuscript before publication in October. We read our pages carefully for errors, then checked the previous draft’s markup to make sure all our corrections made it into the final draft. By the end of our review, I felt pretty confident we had caught everything. I say “felt,” but it wasn’t a feeling. It was a decision. We’d done our best and it was time to let go.
But this was just our review of the stories, essays, and poems. You can’t check a recipe inside and out by merely reading it. You have to make the recipe, too.
And so I cooked each of my eight recipes exactly as written, following instructions pedantically, cooking like I never do. They had been tested twice before—once by me, while writing them, and once by a volunteer baker—but I wanted to make sure no details had been pared off by copyedits, no steps lost to unrecorded advice. I thought the recipes were perfect already, so this step was meant to calm my nerves.
I found mistakes in every single one. I tweaked tablespoons and inserted small—no, medium—saucepans. More than once I thought I’d discovered grave errors only to note that on close reading after the baking was all over, there were no real changes to make. It is possible that I found errors because I expected to find them. It is possible that no recipe can be perfect. I wasn’t sure.
I also wasn’t sure how to calm an overwhelming feeling that I was about to pass my mistakes down to the very people who trusted me enough to use my recipes.
In any book of food, the details must be right. The authority must be deserved. But with recipes, there is an additional gulf between what’s on the page and what happens in the kitchen. When a poet fails to move or an essayist fails to convince, I can accept that as part of a larger attempt that’s worth the trouble of failure. When the recipe writer fails, that failure becomes the reader’s failure, too.
So I did what I always do when I can’t figure something out and it’s driving me crazy. I took notes.
The “Controversial Patent” section of the Wikipedia page for Smucker’s Uncrustables® explains that Uncrustables® are “a sealed crustless sandwich, comprising:
a first bread layer having a first perimeter surface coplanar to a contact surface;
at least one filling of an edible food juxtaposed to said contact surface;
second bread layer juxtaposed to said at least one filling opposite of said first bread layer, wherein said second bread layer includes a second perimeter surface similar to said first perimeter surface;
a crimped edge directly between said first perimeter surface and said second perimeter surface for sealing at least one filling between said first bread layer and second said first bread layer; wherein a crust portion of said first bread layer and said second bread layer has been removed.”
This is how a lawyer makes a sandwich.
This is also a great example of how a recipe with too many details is as inscrutable as a recipe with too few.
Translation: Spread peanut butter on one slice of bread, jelly on another, put the pieces of bread together on their spread-sides, and cut off their crusts while simultaneously crimping their edges.When the recipe writer fails, that failure becomes the reader’s failure, too.
Translation: You don’t need a translation. If you’ve eaten a PB&J, you know how to make a PB&J.
Writing a recipe and reading a recipe are both acts of translation. They cause the act of making food to change and lose and pick up new meanings. There’s no way to stop this. No way to write a recipe that can be perfectly interpreted.
Great recipes find the balance between specificity and summary, hand-holding and trust. Omitting a detail might be a clarifying strategy, or it might be a sign of the recipe writer’s sloppiness, or it might be a sign that she trusts her reader, or it might be a sign that the publication isn’t styled for long sentences.
I had decided that the recipes in Pie & Whiskey would not be complex or complexly described. This was for stylistic reasons. Pie & Whiskey is mainly a book of prose and poetry, with the recipes as stopping points between sections. Recipes occur in a different time (always the present) and at a different register (the imperative). I didn’t want them to go on for too long.
They should be easy to pass over while reading and returned to later when it’s time to bake. That meant when I wrote “roll out the dough,” I would assume the reader knows how to. In the final edit I added “…on a floured surface,” to soothe my worry that the reader wouldn’t know I’m assuming this already. I could add that instruction easily, in four words, whereas I couldn’t add how to actually roll the dough. In my cookbook Pie School, those instructions took two pages and six images to explain. In Pie & Whiskey, if it was too hard to explain quickly, I left it out. This would have consequences. A different decision would have also had consequences.
The word “recipe” originated as a doctor’s set of instructions—a prescription for medicine from the French (which got it from the Latin) for “take!” (exclamation point from the Online Etymology Dictionary). This definition persists now only through the pharmacist’s abbreviation Rx. Recipe as we know it, as in “instructions for preparing food,” didn’t show up until 1716.
The basic ambition of every recipe is one person helping another person make something. Within that making, there’s also a taking. Someone has asked for something to soothe or heal, and they have received their instructions.
I am a home cook, which means I write recipes according to what I have learned from other home cooks, cookbooks, and my experiences actually cooking. Someone who’s been to culinary school or cooks in restaurant kitchens might find plenty to disagree with here.Every time a person follows a recipe, they take your advice and remake it.
For home cooks, bloggers, Substackers, many freelance food writers, and most cookbook writers, there isn’t a standard for recipe testing. Not like there’s a standard for grammar (Chicago Manual of Style, etc.).
Some food writers employ an army of testers.
Some of those writers acknowledge their testers beyond their acknowledgements page, which bakes experimentation, feedback, and credit-sharing into their writing styles and gives the reader a sense of the group effort that recipes can require. See Yotam Ottolenghi’s headnotes in Jerusalem, or the collective first-person POV of Cook’s Illustrated.
Some people have a group of volunteer testers whose expertise and commitment vary (that’s me).
Some people do all the testing themselves.
I’m pretty sure some writers don’t test at all. If I follow a recipe and it fails, you can bet that’s what I’ll accuse the writer of.
When I was writing Pie School, my editor assumed I was testing my recipes but didn’t require me to give him proof. It really only came up when I mentioned anxiety about a pie crust recipe. “You tested it, didn’t you?” Gary asked, suddenly worried. I had. I swear!
This crust was a bedrock recipe of the book. I’d made it a thousand times.
It occurred to me that fluency with this dough could cause me to leave important details untranslated.
It was the food stylist’s problem, really. She couldn’t get the crust to work. “What do you mean when you say it doesn’t work?” I asked (instead of “WHAT DO YOU MEAN IT DOESN’T WORK?”), walking the line between respecting her expertise and defending my own. “It slumps,” she said. “What do you mean when you say it slumps?” I asked. “When I put the pie together and make designs in the crust, it’s all pretty. But then I bake it and everything melts,” she said.
It wasn’t that the crust didn’t work. It was flaky, it was buttery. It was also ugly, which is what the stylist cared about. I added a sentence to the headnote just in case the reader shared that worry, hoping it might contain what I couldn’t control—i.e., my recipe and reader’s feelings. “If your pie looks a bit homely,” I wrote, “you’re doing it right.”
The first recipe, and maybe the best recipe in Pie & Whiskey, is “Chocolate Pecan Pie Shots.” The recipe asks the reader to make caramel, dump it over pulverized pecans, and shape the mixture into shot glasses using a muffin tin as a mold, then paint the inside with melted chocolate, and finally, after the shot glass cools, fill it with whiskey. Brilliant, right? Not if you’re a nervous caramel maker.
I’ve made these shots seven times now, and each time I overthink it, they go wrong. The caramel is too soft and the shot walls collapse. The caramel is too hard and it turns to cement in my mixing bowl before I can boss it into shape. Each time I follow my directions. I swear I do. But sometimes I skip a word, or stir too much, or put a slightly wrong amount of caramel-covered nuts in the muffin tin molds.
Which makes me wonder: If a recipe must be so precisely followed that any minor deviation spells disaster, does that mean I should write a longer, more explanatory recipe? Or is that inability to deviate just the sign of a novice, and unavoidable, and better to help the reader out of that stage by treating them like they can handle it, like they can fill in the blanks? Experienced cooks are always filling in the blanks. My mistakes with the caramel are mistakes of instinct. I can’t prevent the reader from making those. I let the recipe stand as-is.
It’s been six years since we turned in the manuscript. My anxiety and memory have faded. What was I so worried about? Everything we make is a product of the limits we inherit and the limits we choose. If a pie has no crust, it isn’t a pie. If the recipe for pie crust is confusing, wing it and pray. To write a better recipe, follow these four easy steps:
1. Ask yourself, who is my audience? How comfortable am I with failure—their failure and mine?
2. Divide your answers by the fact that more information doesn’t necessarily mean clear information.
3. Divide again by the fact that every time you edit a recipe, you might introduce an error.
4. Finally, remember that every time a person follows a recipe, they take your advice and remake it. Their failures are translations that keep the recipe alive.
“The Recipe Writer’s Dilemma” by Kate Lebo will appear in the Summer 2023 issue of Cake Zine.