“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” Anaïs Nin
A written recipe tells one cook how to make something another has previously made. When that new cook executes a recipe, they follow instructions in order to achieve a desired output. These instructions reveal a way to get to B from A. Some cooks may not be comfortable proceeding without this clear direction. Others may feel that they cannot ignore the rules. But the design of the recipe assumes that cooks won’t deviate far from the proposed trajectory by training them to do as they are told.
The thing is, no matter how hard a cook tries to reproduce the dish exactly as called for, it will never turn out the same as the one the recipe was derived from. The cook inevitably takes a personal approach to these instructions. Each interpreter may have access to a different set of materials. Each cook approaches the making of a dish with their own biases, moods, tastes, associations, preferences and past experiences. If a dish is made by two people in the exact same way, it’s different because it was made by two separate pairs of hands. If a restaurant serves a dish early in the night and again later, the two plates are different because they were created and experienced at different times. If a dish is made the same way by one person multiple times, the dish is different, every time. No two instances of a dish can ever be the same. If there is so much variation in what we cook, then why should recipes push for uniformity?
“But humans are Nature’s great ad libbers and revisers. Diversity is our delight.” Diane Ackerman
The modern design of a recipe—the kind that list the ingredients followed by the instructions, or the two woven into each other, normally paired with a brief essay or introduction—efficiently attempts to align methods and procedures, subsequently deeming the individuality brought to the practice as unimportant, forgettable even. That may not be what the cook wants, however it is what this type of layout implies.
“I often feel guilty when writing recipes. To capture what one can of elusive, changing experience... and imprison it in a chilly formula, composed of cups, tablespoons, inches and oven temperatures, is like robbing a bird of flight.” Richard Olney
These recipes crop out the unexpected, spontaneous moments that inevitably happen in the cooking process. They do not celebrate the collection of ingredients, range of tools or quantity of time and space at a cook’s disposal compared to another’s. They do not encourage a playful, ad hoc performance that I wish would be more widely accepted and utilized simply because it is what tends to happen more than not and nothing feels more liberating than cooking in that way.
I, someone who considers herself a well-seasoned cook, worry we are too comfortable with this accepted system of notation. It’s limiting and constraining. It proves how obedient our species has become and that our attention spans can only accommodate pre-chewed information. This simplified format stresses the goal of exactitude in ingredients, measurements, procedures, order and placement. And let’s not forget the omnipresent images that have come to guide our very appetites. A photo may capture all the ingredients properly in place, but it convinces cooks to blindly follow the recipe. Even if a cook acknowledges that their outcome will not look like the photo, their mind is tainted by what could be. The photographs further cause the cook to forget that, in this situation, it is they who actually stipulate the terms of their own success. The images steal the sensuality from the experience and unfortunately the coupled language can easily fail to make up for that.
“And when I cook, I never measure or weigh anything. I cook by vibration. I can tell by the look and smell of it. Most of the ingredients in this book are approximate. … Different strokes for different folks. Do your thing your way.” Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor
I argue for recipes that demonstrate an attitude—not a technique—in favor of variation. Rather than command the production of an ideal outcome, recipes could more obviously encourage adaptations. A recipe, created with this realigned priority, would capture an occasion. It would reveal one time a dish was made and all the qualities of that unique process to show the experience that specific cook had while making that instance of a dish. I see the opportunity to devise a new design for recipe notation, involving the re-complication of the format by devising a new visual language. One that makes space for all the minutiae and nuance, mistakes and questions that arise in cooking a version. In a way, I want to create recipes that cannot be followed.