This month finds me hunkered behind my computer screen as the leaves drift past my window, finishing up a manuscript for my second cookbook with Andrea Froncillo. Last time, we were mostly working from a set script; our goal was simply to translate the dishes from The Stinking Rose menu into recipes that people could easily make at home.
The current cookbook-in-progress has a few similar elements; the theme is crab, and some of the recipes are being taken from Andrea’s two crab restaurants on Fisherman’s Wharf, the Crab House on Pier 39 and the Franciscan Crab Restaurant at Pier 43 1/2.
But this isn’t a restaurant cookbook, and so we’re also inventing as we go. It’s a good thing that I love seafood as much as I do, as I’ve been tasting quite a bit of crab, and I can honestly say that I’m not tired of it yet. It helps that the crab I’m using in my test recipes is premium grade jumbo crabmeat (and big, meaty crab legs) that I get from the restaurants; in the spirit of research, I’ve been buying crab from random places (Trader Joe’s, the Safeway seafood counter, Whole Foods) to see what kind of product is out there, and I am amazed at the difference. No wonder many people only eat crab in restaurants – it’s often far better quality.
But beyond these crabby musings, I’ve been giving more thought to the art of recipe writing lately. As I’ve pondered the question of why modern recipes are written the way they are, I’ve gotten a bit of insight from The Recipe Writer’s Handbook, which reports that “… consumers lack confidence in their ability to cook.” Hence, most of our “modern” recipes contain lists of precise measurements, and terse, exacting instructions that turn recipes into somewhat scientific formulas.
Not that there is anything wrong with this; clear, precise instructions ensure that a recipe is reproducible and comes out the same way virtually every time. And that’s a very good thing.
I love Shuna’s approach to recipe writing; in her recipes, all the amounts are written to the right of the ingredient, instead of to the left. This was the way they did it at Citizen Cake when she worked there, for the reason that any deviations (half, double, triple) could be easily made on the right-hand side of the page. I love how practical and useful that is, and it seems especially apropos in pastry or dessert work, where small changes make a big impact on the final result.
I do have to confess, however, that I love recipes that are casually written, like narrative journeys through the making of a dish. Think of the recipes that dotted M.F.K Fisher’s writing; they flowed like a natural part of the story, rather than being stuck at the end of an essay, as most recipes currently are. Remember her scrambled egg recipe in How To Cook a Wolf? Spectacular.
Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver are both contemporary cooks who, besides being famous, frequently write their recipes with a tone of easy familiarity. In the middle of recipe instructions, Jamie might write: “Feel free to…” and take you in an alternate direction, something that most recipe editors simply would not tolerate.
Nigella might write: “If you’ve got a vanilla bean, cut down its length…” rather than the more formal (and more common): “Cut a vanilla bean lengthwise…”
If you’ve got a vanilla bean? What kind of recipe writing is that? It’s comforting, over-the-kitchen-counter writing, that’s what, and I love it.
For this cookbook, I’m just following standard modern practice, but I do dream of doing something more fluid and creative in the future. I have the notion that someday I’ll write a cookbook for my sisters, composed of the recipes we’ve shared at family gatherings and some of my own favorites, all written in a narrative format that incorporates our stories. But we shall see.
I’m so thrilled for the many bloggers with cookbook deals; I recently had the opportunity to hold the galley proofs of Heidi Swanson’s forthcoming cookbook; it was absolutely gorgeous, as befits someone with such a beautiful blog and such elegant design sense, and I can’t wait for the real thing.
Clotide’s cookbook is nearly out, and Shauna is scribbling like mad to finish hers. So much to look forward to!
But crab waits for no one, and so I must get back to my work.