Recipes need some sifting

My girls complain about my recipes—not about how they taste, but about how they read. They say my writing leaves something to be desired.

You know how well that goes over with a writer?

Like yeast bread that doesn’t rise. Like a cake that falls and cookies that crumble. You get the idea.

My recipes are not poorly written. They are descriptive. They leave room for imagination. And interpretation.

The girls object to a glub of this, a pinch of that, a dash of something else. They are also opposed to a little of this and a little of that.

I learned to cook watching my mother. She had a wooden recipe box for baked goods where the amounts and ratios are critical, but for the most part she just cooked, or “whipped things up” – another vague but delightful cooking term.


My mom graduated from the Culinary School of Ad Lib—she was of a generation that learned to cook watching their mothers cook during hard times known as the Depression.

Likewise, many of the things I cook I learned by watching her cook. Like potato salad. You don’t even need to write the recipe down, I can just tell it to you (another habit I have that is frowned upon).

Boil a pot full of potatoes and cut them up. Add a couple squirts of mustard, a glub of vinegar, chopped onions, chopped celery, salt and pepper, a good sprinkle of sugar and some big mounds of mayonnaise. Finish it off with a few shakes of paprika and garnish with whatever you have in the fridge – green olives, black olives, hard boiled eggs, parsley, green onions.

The girls claim the recipe is impossible because it is not specific.

My counter claim is that the lack of specifics means your potato salad never turns out the same way twice so people you serve it to never get bored.

The girls say my lack of specifics also can yield too much potato salad.

I say if you have too much potato salad, invite more people over.

I do admit the way I write recipes is sometimes streamlined. I list the ingredients, followed by cooking instructions, which often read, “You know what to do now, right?”

Such brevity is not acceptable in the days of food blogs and Pinterest. Every recipe comes with a myriad of photos detailing every step, detailed specifics including what brand of baking soda to use, videos demonstrating how to use a whisk, lengthy narratives (novellas really) about restlessness, cloudy days, a love of brown eggs and the thrill of smelling good vanilla.

I am of the Nike Culinary School. Just cook it.

I recently made an applesauce cake recipe that has been in our family for generations. The recipe is written in a great-aunt’s distinctive script on an aging brittle piece of cardboard. All of the ingredients are listed. As for directions, it simply says “Bake in a moderate oven.”

I rest my case. And my cake.

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