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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, burn language to a crisp.
Coming up in today’s show: foooood! How do you put food into words so that some stranger can read the words and make the food - good recipe writing can be invisible work. What are the verbal ingredients of a well-written recipe?
On with the show.
FELICITY CLOAKE: It's very nerveracking because people spend money on ingredients, they may be cooking it for a special occasion, they try to impress a date or whatever - there's a lot that can go wrong with food and it's quite a weighty responsibility to be responsible someone's dinner or their birthday cake or whatever; it is a big deal.
RACHEL GREENHAUS: If it's a cookbook for family use, you're going to write it differently than if it's a cookbook for expert bakers and figuring out how to get the recipe that's right for that.
MIMI AYE: It's very different from cooking in real life, I think. Which is weird because you're trying to tell people how to cook the dish.
RACHEL GREENHAUS: It would be really easy to show you, but it's hard to describe in language.
MIMI AYE: Yeah, it's a complete nightmare. There's so much that you do and you assume that people understand what you're saying.
My name is MiMi Aye and I am the author of two cookery books. The first one is called Noodle! 100 Great Recipes, and the second one is called Mandalay.
So even things like "cover with a lid" rather than just saying “cover”. You have to say "with the lid".
HZ: Rather than a sweater or a hat.
MIMI AYE: Yes! Even things like measurements. So one of the things I do, I think a lot of cooks do, is they say a dash of this and a spoonful of that and a glug of this. And then you get people saying, "No no no, you have to say what millilitres it is or what grammage it is" and you go, "oh I've never weighed this before I just know it, because that's what it is." That was difficult. One of my recipes, one of the ingredients is a third of a banana. And my editor came to me and asked "How much does it that weigh?" I don't know how much a third of a banana weighs!
HZ: How big is the banana?
MIMI AYE: How big is a banana? I know it's a reasonable question. It is a reasonable question. But the thing is I've never weighed it because it's always seems to work is always a third. It doesn't matter what size the banana is!
HZ: I suppose even a massive banana or a moderate to small banana, once you've only got a third of it, the distinction between a third of massive and a third of small is not so huge.
RACHEL GREENHAUS: And people complain about how things are written, too; they complain about the language you use to describe things because it doesn't make sense to them. And then we know we have to write it differently in order to clearly explain the process.
HZ: This is Rachel Greenhaus, a cookbook editor for America's Test Kitchen. So when the staff cooks concoct recipes, it’s Rachel’s job to ensure that they’re written in a way that means they are comprehensible to the cookbook user at home. There’s no room for misunderstanding in a recipe. Or your pie might explode or your soup could give everyone the runs.
RACHEL GREENHAUS: Our recipes, all of the actual "Here's how much of this to use and what to do with it”, come from trained cooks. And then it comes to me for editing, to make sure it sounds right. There are certain ways we have to talk about certain things because you always want to describe this particular action the exact same way across all recipes across all books. And that is prescriptive. What is not is everything around it. So we have headnotes, what we call the "Why this recipe works", that's a little essay that tells you what you're going to do and why and how we got to the point.
HZ: And it might make you interested in trying that particular recipe, as well as telling you what you might serve it with, or how you could modify it with extra spices or a different cut of meat. Rachel also has to tweak these headnotes if the recipe has been adapted from, say, an older recipe where the language needs updating or if the recipe previously appeared in a different context.
RACHEL GREENHAUS: So if originally it was written for a magazine where they had three pages to talk about yeast and here I only have a paragraph, it's deciding what's the most important thing to say. And if someone's only going to read what's on this page, will they be able to make this dish exactly like they need to in order to succeed? So my job is framing, contextualizing, translating from professional cook, trained cook to home cook, and sometimes even to people who can't cook who are trying to learn, because people who have gone through culinary school or cooked in restaurants don't always know what people don't know.
HZ: That’s a thing, when you’re writing a recipe: how much knowledge and expertise do you presume the cook has?
MIMI AYE: Unless you're writing Noma by Rene Redzepi, the assumption is that it will be someone coming in cold who doesn't necessarily have any experience at all. And so you need to be able to give - it's a set of instructions isn't it? You want them to be able to follow it and be able to do it from start to finish.
RACHEL GREENHAUS: We're making so many assumptions, secret assumptions about what people at home are doing and how they're doing it - that you have an oven, that you have a stove, that you have refrigeration, that you know what tool to use when I say stir, you know what tool to use when I say whisk, you know what tool to use when I say scrape.
HZ: 'Combine' would be a word I see quite a lot that, if you didn't know what you were doing, that could have so many different applications.
RACHEL GREENHAUS: That's what I never even thought about and I use it all the time. There are so many different ways you could do that. And if I just use the word I guess I'm assuming you're doing it the way I mean you to.
HZ: In a cement mixer.
RACHEL GREENHAUS: Yes, with a birch broom or something.
HZ: I’ve noticed in my cookery book collection, which spans many decades, books from the past twenty years or so tend to tell you exactly what to do in each step: “Take the pastry out of your fridge for five minutes, then sprinkle your clean and dry work surface and clean and dry rolling pin with flour until they are finely but consistently covered and roll out the pastry to the thickness of a pound coin whilst chanting, “I am the king of pastry! I am the king of pastry!” But go back to the 1980s or further and they might not tell you that you need to flour the surface before rolling out pastry - “First, make your pastry, idiot, then line your pie dish with it and make a lattice for the top, USE YOUR HEAD do I have to tell you everything?” - and in some recipes from a few hundred years before that, the instructions just say something like, “First, make a life-size pastry deer -” how? - “then fill it with wine” - how? - “then shoot it with an arrow so it looks like it’s bleeding” - WHY? (And also how?)
FELICITY CLOAKE: I do think it's important with recipes to be very very clear and not make any assumptions because you don't know who you're talking to and you don't know even if they know how to make pastry.
HZ: Let alone a pastry deer. Felicity Cloake is the author of five cookbooks - she writes the How To Make The Perfect column in the Guardian, where she tries out several different cookery writers’ version of a recipe of, say, profiteroles or spanakopita or vindaloo, to work out how to make the best version. So she not only writes recipes, she reads a lot of different ones too.
FELICITY CLOAKE: I think you never stop learning so you can never put too much detail in a recipe in my opinion. I think I find it quite easy just because I've never had any formal cookery training, And initially I thought that was a great disadvantage; and now I think it's a great boon, because OK, my pastry definitely is not as good as Delia's, but it does mean that I know how to explain things because I have learned them myself as well.
RACHEL GREENHAUS: A lot of my job is making sure everything is spelled out enough that people can successfully cook from it, but not so much that someone's is going to look at it and be like, "Do you think I'm an idiot?" Because you don't want to condescend either! And people are very touchy about that stuff, I've found, because cooking is this weird sort of intimate space where people have very strong feelings about - even if they don't think of themselves as cooks, if you do it every day, and someone comes in and tries to spell things out to you, there's a weird dynamic there of you're not an expert but you are; you're a competent or you're a regular even if you've never studied or even never even had a home ec class, and it's something that people learn in a very intimate way often too, whether learning from family members, learning at Grandma's apron strings or something. So you have to be just the right balance.
HZ: Right, so just from the words on the page, ensure that someone - anyone - could correctly turn out the dish, without having to go so far as to tell them which kitchen drawer to find their rolling pin in.
Then there are numerous other constraints that a recipe-writer might be under.
RACHEL GREENHAUS: So we're doing healthier books lately where they're not allowed to - the sodium count can't be over a certain level or the fat count or you can't use certain ingredients. I just did a book on the food processor. It was like how to use your food processor more in the kitchen. And every part of the recipe - if it was a recipe that someone just was like, “:et's make a cake and make it in the food processor" and then every step of the recipe you have to think, I could do it by hand or should I do it in a food processor? And so that the way you write the recipe and the ingredients you choose to use - all the decisions lead back to how can we most emphasize the food processor, rather than what would make this cake actually platonically the best cake. So if it's more interesting to chop nuts in the food processor than it is to just add some almond extract, then it would be a cake with almonds in it rather than a cake with almond extract because then you're showing more about how the tool works.
Sometimes it's literal constraints of a published book. So you only have ten lines to list the ingredients so you can't have more than ten ingredients.
RACHEL GREENHAUS: Because that's how printing works. If you're trying to get a recipe on every page, then you have to have a photo because everyone has to have photos now, and you know that the recipe is a certain length. All of our designers are in house; they'll show us a mockup of what a page looks like. You count the lines...
HZ: So no 20-ingredient spice blends for you, sunshine! Although the recipe’s ingredients and steps are not always dictated by the room on the page. MiMi Aye was given a lot more freedom in her books.
MIMI AYE: Actually quite a lot the salad recipes is literally just "mix all of the ingredients together". So it's like one sentence, that's my kind of recipe. Some of the recipes are just one sentence; some go on for like four pages.
HZ: Is there some fear when you're writing a recipe and it's for pages that someone will get to that bit of the book and just look at it and go "Oh no I can't do this", just the size of it looks overwhelming?
MIMI AYE: Yeah, I’ve tried very very hard not to do that. The only times I've kind of done that is where there literally are that many stages but it's worth it. And I've tried to say that, I think one of my recipes I've said "This is a massive faff". That's literally what I said about it.
HZ: I think I would find that reassuring though, that I wasn't doing it wrong if it was a massive faff. Or if you think it's a massive faff it must be worth it.
MIMI AYE: I've tried to be honest with everything, like one of my other recipes says, "This will make your house stink for about two days." I don't want people to fall into the trap of going "Oh I'll make this recipe" and then saying "Oh my God, what's happened?"
HZ: I like that, it's anti-aspirational.
MIMI AYE: Managing expectations. That's what that's about.
HZ: Very thoughtful.
MIMI AYE: I try.
FELICITY CLOAKE: When I'm writing about food, I do try to describe more than just the taste and the appearance because you when you're eating something, even if you don't realize it is a big part of it.
I try to, again, make it simple for the home cook like me, who maybe doesn't have an instant probe thermometer or whatever, to look at something or touch it, give it a poke, and see how it's done because that's so important. I don't like to trust recipes absolutely; you should also use your eyes and your ears - ear's important if, for example if you're trying to see if a pan is hot enough to cook meat, that sizzle. But all your senses are very very useful and I think sometimes they're neglected by more traditional cookery writers.
RACHEL GREENHAUS: You give a range of times for doneness; you give a visual - not just visual, all kinds of sensual cues, so it's about the smell, it's about the way something feels when you touch it, it’s about how it looks.
HZ: Those visual cues, you have to choose carefully too. But saying something like, “Roll the pastry out to the thickness of a pound coin” is no use to the cook in a territory that does not use pound coins, or instructing someone unfamiliar with American small change to squeeze a dime-sized blob of something. “Fry until golden brown” - I get why that one is used a lot, although “Fry until Pantone shade number 15-0953” would be more objective.
FELICITY CLOAKE: It does require a little bit of head-scratching, knowing how the clearest way to depict something is. And knowing how to describe things accurately. And sometimes it can involve a little bit of creativity, thinking what does that really look like to you that's obviously a commonly recognized phenomenon.
MIMI AYE: You try to draw comparisons so that people understand the familiar. So when I'm trying to describe what something should look like I'll say "it should look like a cigar" or "it should look like a ping pong ball".
FELICITY CLOAKE: If you read a lot of recipes, they have certain stock phrases. And it's not that those phrases are wrong - for example, they'll tell you to rub butter and flour until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Not that that's wrong. But we've all read it so many times you actually stop thinking about it. I thought about it the other day; it doesn't really look like coarse breadcrumbs to me, it looks more like damp sand. And actually if you actually make people look at it anew, they start thinking about what they're doing and then pay a little bit more attention.
HZ: It’s not just visual comparisons that are useful when writing recipes. MiMi Aye’s new book Mandalay is a Burmese cookery book, and she has to anticipate it being read and used by people that are not necessarily familiar with Burma or its ingredients and flavours, so she might refer to other countries’ food to give the gist.
MIMI AYE: So you have to say, "Oh look these are our neighbours: India, Thailand, China, and we've got influences from them." You can say it's a bit like Malaysia as well in terms of it's not just noodles, it's not just rice, it's all sorts of whatever we have.
HZ: it’s not always the best tactic to use a comparison to something else, though, as Rachel Greenhaus has encountered.
RACHEL GREENHAUS: Someone wrote in to one of the magazines saying, “My girlfriend is vegan but I love cooking with bacon fat. What can I cook with that will taste similar?” And they went through all of these tests to try to come up with something that would be smoky and sweet and fat and rich. They came up with this very complex eight-ingredient mixture of coconut oil and smoked paprika and turbinado sugar and all these things mixed in together and you had to melt it and you had to clarify and then you could use it and at the end they were just like "but it doesn't taste like bacon!" So if that's what you're aiming for.
HZ: It's like you couldn't make bacon taste like a cucumber.
RACHEL GREENHAUS: But when you come around to a lot of vegan cooking, they're describing it in terms of non-vegan foods. So when I'm writing I try and avoid saying "This tastes just like chicken", "This tastes like tuna salad even though it's made of chickpeas".
HZ: But without comparison to other foods, it can be quite difficult to encapsulate flavour in words, as it’s subjective and it’s a sensory experience - and also to convey to a reader that the recipe will be appetizing. Saying something is delicious doesn’t necessarily convince that it’s delicious.
RACHEL GREENHAUS: Something that differs between corporate authorship, like we've got a test kitchen and I'm not writing as me, versus like a blogger who writes a cookbook of stuff they've cooked in a kitchen because they love it and their kids love it, and it's ‘delectable’ and ‘nummy’ and all of those words they like to use. But I would never use those words because we're trying to come from a more objective point of view, and the words we tend to use are ‘perfect’ or ‘foolproof’ or ‘ultimate’.
HZ: Those are real grandstanding words! ‘Ultimate’ - that is game over. ‘Perfect’ - you’re building something very difficult for yourself.
RACHEL GREENHAUS: But it tends towards - not that those are objective terms, but more towards like things I could somehow offer objective proof towards. Like if you didn't do it this way it would be worse because of this scientific reaction, rather than if you didn't do it this way you might like it better because your tastes are different.
HZ: Words like 'nummy' are very difficult for me to stomach. But I do think a lot of us find it hard to verbalize something being delicious or good or nice. How do we express more the sensual experience of food?
RACHEL GREENHAUS: That's exactly what you would do: you talk about actual effects on the senses rather than going into the colourful or the poetic. So you talk about texture. You talk about combinations. You talk about - you know there's six tastes, so you talk about balance of acidic and sweet, you talk about umami. You talk about where things in the past have failed, and here's what we did differently. I think we sometimes say 'delicious', but that's about as far as you go. It's too subjective and it's also imprecise. And so we get from this scientific perspective of "Things that have been browned or caramelised taste good. Why do they taste good? It's because when the proteins reach a certain point, they break down and recombine to form new flavour compounds and they hit certain receptors on your tongue in a particular way and also in your nose as you're breathing it in. And why does hot food taste better than cold food? It's because of the way that your tongue, your taste buds, react to the excitation in the molecule."
HZ: Molecules and receptors are very appetizing terms.
HZ: I’ve noticed that a lot of the recipe writers that make me hungry aren’t doing that by telling me the food tastes good; they talk about how that dish might fit a particular mood or circumstance. For instance MiMi Aye accompanies each of her recipes with an introduction about the emotion or history or anecdote.
MIMI AYE: Because I'm talking about where I'd eat this and how I'd eat this and who I'd be eating it with, hopefully I'm putting a picture into that person's head, the person reading it, where they go, "Oooh I'd like some of that".
FELICITY CLOAKE: "Gosh, I really fancy that for dinner." Which is half the battle with the recipes: that you want to make them.
HZ: And the other half of the battle with the recipes is optimising the likelihood of that dinner turning out well.
RACHEL GREENHAUS: I think people have a very intimate and complicated relationship with cooking, and being good at cooking or being bad at cooking or not being able to cook for yourself, or failing in the kitchen, are things that carry a lot of weight for a lot of people. And being able to use language to communicate to people how to do something both so visceral, feeding yourself and surviving, but also so creative that people take so much - you can get a lot of pride from it, a lot of creative satisfaction, both for yourself and then also for anyone you're cooking for. It can bring people together and so helping people to do that better and not fail quite so often and feel more confident about it is very gratifying.
HZ: Rachel Greenhaus was, at time of recording, a cookbook editor for America's Test Kitchen - she just got a new job, congrats Rachel. Felicity Cloake writes the column How To Cook The Perfect… - it is an invaluable resource, I always check it when I’m trying to cook something I haven’t made before. As well as five cookbooks, she is the author of One More Croissant For The Road, a very fun memoir about when Felicity cycled more than 2000km around France in search of the best version of the greatest French foodstuffs. MiMi Aye is the author of two cookbooks: Noodle! and Mandalay, out now and I want to cook everything in them. And coming up in today’s Minillusionist, MiMi and Rachel consider whether a number of the difficulties in recipe-writing can be overcome by using visuals instead of words.
MIMI AYE: I don't really read cookery books. I just look at the pictures. I’m a terrible, terrible person. It doesn't mean I don't buy the books, I buy so many of them. But I don't tend to read them and that's terrible. I just look at the pictures and stroke the covers.
RACHEL GREENHAUS: But there's this other question of the book as art object. And so do those photos that you present have to all be practical demonstrations of procedure? Are people using them in order to cook and you have to show the steps that are hardest and you have to show them exactly how you do them? Or are they using the photos of beautiful things to look at and then they can be sort of artistically thrown together and they're a little more inspirational rather than technical?
HZ: So is it to stimulate your appetite and desire, or is it instructional?
RACHEL GREENHAUS: Yes. You've got also the question of beautiful finished food photographs - what it looks like on your table, on your dish, when everything is put together, in your beautiful marble kitchen? Or are these step by step instructions on how to make something and what's the interaction visually between those two different kinds of photos? And then do you have to explain what's happening in the photo or are they readable on their own - how does the language interact with the photo?
MIMI AYE: Even though obviously a lot of the text is blow by blow - "this is how you boil an egg" - you've only got the finished shot most of the time. I think a couple of ones for the salads just because the different ingredients laid out were quite attractive. And actually for some of the recipes because they are - for want of a better word, when they cook down, some of the vegetables kind of look like sludge. We've tried to put the kind of raw ingredient around the sides so you know what it looked like before. Because invariably it was actually more attractive when it was raw. One of the recipes is for - I suppose it's our Burmese equivalent of miso. And so obviously that would just be a bowl of black sludge. So what we've done there is there's a bowl of this paste and then the beans that we used in their untainted state all around it.
HZ: Maybe it is better just to have the words so you don't have to see the sludge.
MIMI AYE: They've done a good job of making it look attractive actually - ‘glamorous sludge’ I think was the term we used.
RACHEL GREENHAUS: But the problem is people are just used to beautiful photos now and are used to tons of photos, and video. Although you know what is interesting to me: I've heard anecdotally and seen a little bit of evidence from sales, no one wants an e-book cookbook.
HZ: I don't want to use -
RACHEL GREENHAUS: - You don't want to use a device in the kitchen.
HZ: I really don't. Or use my dirty cooking hands on it.
RACHEL GREENHAUS: Yeah. There's no way around that practical aspect of it but just it makes so much sense. Every recipe could have a little video clip. And everyone says they go the internet for recipes anyway. And unless they're my mother I don't think they're printing all of those recipes out.
HZ: She’s printing every frame of the video.
RACHEL GREENHAUS: So there's this tension between how people want to get their cooking information.
HZ: That old adage “A picture’s worth a thousand words” might be apt though when it comes to MiMi trying to explain how to make belt noodles.
MIMI AYE: Saying things like, "You need to roll it into this shape and then you have to pull at the ends together and get them to stick together" whereas this would be just one swift action on YouTube that I could show you. There's only so much you can do with words because you want to show someone going, "look at me flipping this thing like a skipping rope".
HZ: I hate to admit to words' limitations, but they have them.
Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
bricole, noun: a medieval catapult for hurling stones; the rebound of a ball from the wall of a real tennis court; a similar stroke in billiards; a rebound.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with help from Martin Austwick, who also makes the music you hear in the show. Hear his songs at palebirdmusic.com. On Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, you can find me at allusionistshow; and every episode of the Allusionist, transcripts, extra information about every topic, the full dictionary entry for the randomly selected words, and live event listings, all live at the show’s forever home theallusionist.org.