Every Recipe Is A Story
Whether you like it or not.
The other day, I got mad online.
This is not especially newsworthy in and of itself; the internet of 2022 exists primarily as a tool to make one upset, and it’s a highly effective tool for the task. All you have to do is scroll, and there will be the opinions of complete strangers, custom-crafted and tailor-made to tick you off. I could just set down my phone and read a book instead of getting mad at things said by people I’ve never met; books usually don’t make me mad.
Nevertheless, I persist.
The take that got under my skin this time isn’t a new one—in fact, it’s a painfully common one, as hackily familiar as a “what’s the deal with airline peanuts?” standup routine. I won’t screenshot the tweet in question here, because I don’t mean to direct this at the specific person who aired it this time, but it went something like this:
If you're a food blogger, let me give you some advice: All we want is the recipe. We don't need the backstory, the origin of the flour, or info about how much your kid ate. That is all.
First of all, I don’t recall asking you for advice.
That said, if you’re going to offer unsolicited advice, it should at least be helpful advice. This is not helpful advice; this is complaining about the format of something you (presumably) got for free.
Now, it’s natural for me to take some degree of umbrage to this take because I am, rather objectively speaking, a food blogger. I write about food frequently, and I share recipes—usually with a lot of backstory in them—every single week here on The Action Cookbook Newsletter. (Subscribe now.)
You will have to trust me when I say this is not the only reason I am taking umbrage today, though. You see, when someone airs this sentiment—which, again, is being aired anew somewhere at virtually any given moment here on Al Gore’s Disgruntlement Machine—they are willfully ignoring some important context.
The first thing they are ignoring is: you can scroll right past the story! You really can.
Many websites are even kind enough to offer you a “skip to recipe” button. This is not one of those websites, mind you. When I publish recipes here, I do so with the same tone as Adam Sandler’s titular character in The Wedding Singer (1998):
That said, I know those kind of takes aren’t really directed at a site like this one, with a paying base of subscribers and a relatively clean, ad-free interface. They’re referring to a specific kind of SEO-friendly site that pops up at the top of your search results when, standing in the grocery store freezer aisle, you hastily Google “hash brown soup recipe”. I will concede: many of these sites are, to put it kindly, a user experience nightmare. They’re often clogged with pop-up ads and animated sidebar ads and links and all sorts of things that make them fairly unpleasant to use.
All of those things fund the site, though, and the prose preceding the recipe is what helps it appear high in search results, which is why you found it immediately when you searched “hash brown soup”, and now you know that you need to buy an extra package of cream cheese to go with the frozen hash browns already in your cart.
You got something for free—not the cream cheese, you should pay for that—but that means that someone else had to pay for it, hence all the crap you don’t like around the thing you wanted. It’s not always pretty, but it’s the internet we have, and your beef is not with the food bloggerwho crafted that content, but the tech titans who set the terms of your engagement. Take it up with Google and let HashBrownHeaven cook.
Most people know this by now, of course. Frankly, we’ve gone through this cycle publicly a number of times as a society, and the first part of my response is getting as tired a tale as the one it’s responding to. Even if we set all of that aside, though, I still disagree with the take at an even more fundamental level.
I don’t believe recipes should be divorced from all backstory—or even that they can be—because I believe that recipes are stories themselves.
No simple list of ingredients and instruction, no matter how time-tested, finely-honed and perfectly successful in one kitchen, can be perfectly ported to another kitchen by strictly reciting it like some magic spell or piece of computer code. Neither I nor any food writer or chef far more accomplished and credentialed that I is capable of this. Just as Magritte could only offer a representation of a pipe, a recipe-writer or cookbook author can only offer you a story about a meal we once had, one you might want to make yourself.
Given that, isn’t it only logical to tell you a bit more about that meal?
I could tell you about Pastitsio by simply telling you what’s in it—pasta, ground beef, spices, cheese and Béchamel sauce—and that you need to bake it for an hour at 375 degrees Fahrenheit. You’d probably end up with something roughly similar to what I make, but you wouldn’t be getting the full story—that it’s been a part of my family’s holiday dinners since I was young, despite us having no Greek heritage, that it’s the first thing my brother and I ask for when we’re home after a long time away, that it’s a dish I want my children to have that same kind of lifelong warm association with.
I want to tell you that story.
I could tell you about Catalan Chicken by giving you a shopping list—stone fruit and fresh chicken, brandy and aromatic herbs—and telling you how to flambé without setting the entire kitchen on fire. That doesn’t tell you why I make it, or what it means to me: how I had a meal that expanded my youthful culinary horizons in a market in Barcelona, and later found a Catalan-language cookbook from that same chef on a secondhand bookseller’s table. I cooked a meal from it, and it was good. A few years later, I made it again, and it was better. I kept making it, and kept realizing things I’d gotten wrong; improvements in Google Translate meant the recipe I make in 2022 bears only a passing resemblance to the one I first made (incorrectly, it turns out) in 2005, but that first one’s still dear to me.
I want to tell you that story.
I could share with you the component parts of “hot sauce”, a chunky gazpacho-like cold soup made from tomatoes, peppers, olive oil, vinegar, oregano and garlic powder, but it might not sound like much to you if I just told you that. I’d rather share with you how this recipe has been passed down the paternal line of my family for four generations, how it’s one of the first solid foods my father ever ate in 1951. I want to tell you that there’s absolutely nothing like it in the world when you make a batch from tomatoes and peppers grown in your own backyard and you can practically smell the fresh vines and taste the summer sunshine of an early-August harvest.
I want to tell you that story.
Recipes can’t be fully divorced from their origins, nor should they be. Cuisine isn’t a pure science, able to be distilled down to nothing more than simple rules and lists and orders of operation. It’s a storytelling tradition, and the who and when and where and why matters every bit as much as the what and how.
I’d love to make you a meal myself some day; I’d love to have you here in my kitchen and laugh and joke together as we stand over a sizzling pan or bubbling pot, then usher you to my dinner table and partake in that food while sitting beside you.
Then, and only then, would we know we’re eating the exact same thing.
In the meantime, I’ve got a story to tell you, and I’d love it if you’d listen.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
It is also worth noting that there is a strong undercurrent of gendered criticism to this “just give me the recipe for free and don’t talk at me while you’re doing it” discourse, as the large majority of food bloggers are women, and their work is often not treated with the respect it deserves.
I like the story behind food/recipes- I obviously subscribe here, the sites I get recipes from typically have a story (or in the case of Serious Eats, a small encyclopedia) attached, I changed my major in college partly because I loved Good Eats. I remember a few years back, someone shared a grandmother’s recipe (bread maybe?) where I don’t remember what the recipe was but the story was so well told.
My irritation is when the “story” is “it was easy, my kids and/or spouse ate a surprising amount, would eat again”. There isn’t a story to actually tell (that’s a comment you leave on the recipe’s Facebook post, not a story), there is only a recipe, but we’re acting otherwise. (It doesn’t help that in these situations, the writing is in the same tone as most parenting blogs and messages recruiting you into an MLM).
Those pieces can factor into a good story (and frequently do here at ACB), but there’s a wide difference between “these chicken tenders were yummo” and a trip to AC’s to see Barb, or dissertation on the use of various flours in coating and their effects on crunch in fried foods.
The just the recipe folks are the same ones that cry about the reply all emails or that they no longer want to be on a listserv. Please look at me as I take my time to make you address me individually even though there are buttons that have words to skip, unsubscribe, delete quite prevalent on them but you need someone to hold your hand.
I gave my brother a recipe last night for baked potatoes, it was mostly the season mix I use on the skins. But he got the recipe but also a lengthy explanation as to what the instructions really mean, coat v cover, dust v shake. It's like the family recipes that are handwritten and barely legible but unless you cooked it 100 times it will never taste right because there is always something missing.
And truthfully, those that just want the recipe don't deserve to find the happiness in the food that they make. They can just look at it as a mechanical repetitive chore and eat their grey and brown food without the enjoyment of knowing where the recipe came from. And the particular individual who tweeted work for public broadcasting and you know, I'd rather just have a skip button to get back to my kid's TV show instead of listening to a pledge drive.