Food Writing

Recipes as embodied writing and care

Replied to On Recipe Writing by Alicia Kennedy (From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy)

These are the biographical and explanatory headnotes so bemoaned on social media, with people seeking free recipes begging writers to “get to the recipe.” But these are the recipes: The personal narrative is inextricable from the suggested amounts of salt. The narrative is where the voice comes in, providing as much citation and background as possible, to establish that this recipe hasn’t emerged from a void—could not have emerged from nowhere, has a range of influences and inspirations, and is indeed the product of this person’s experience in their kitchen.

I think of Lisa Heldke writing in “Recipes for Theory Making” in 1988, that cooking “has never really been the subject of philosophical consideration,” and that one reason for this is that it’s “women’s activity.”

I think, looking at Johnson, Heldke, and Colwin, that it is radical to insist upon the significance of the writing, the body, and the philosophy of a recipe in a cultural situation where recipes are more accessible than ever and many readers feel entitled to them.

To insist that a recipe is more than a list of ingredients and a set of instructions is to assert the significance of cooking as thinking and recipe development as labor—labor and thinking done by the body and the mind, both as significant to its creation as all the eating and experience that has led to the moment of inspiration.

This is an interesting perspective; I’m personally not bothered by lengthy introductions to recipes, but admit I only read them sometimes. The introduction can be helpful in providing extra context or details — but sometimes it’s a recounting of toddler playtime. It depends on both the source and the situation whether I’m likely to read the intro: is the recipe from one of my go-to websites that I’ve been following for years, where I’ve built up trust in the creator and appreciate them as an individual and creator — or am I vetting a dinner concept and only looking for a spice profile, ingredient ratio, or technique while I’m in a rush trying to make dinner? I can’t say my approach is good (it’s certainly stressful), and maybe I’m missing something by not better vetting recipe sources.

I appreciate her calling out the value of this labor, and definitely can see the entitlement she discusses, which dismisses the contribution of the creator. I do think sometimes the frustration people feel about recipe intros is 1) when they’re SEO dumps nattering on about nothing to pack in keywords, or 2) irritation with a certain type of attitude that feels holier-than-thou or makes parents feel bad about themselves in comparison to mommy bloggers who seem able to do it all. This kind of response is self-imposed, though the type of blog I’m thinking of often enforces heteronormative expectations or writes in black and white terms about what is healthy (a viewpoint often rooted in fatphobia and Puritan self-deprivation — I recommend checking out Virginia Sole-Smith for a less strictured perspective beyond the Michael Pollan crido).

I think a lot about dinner, and cooking, and expectations around food. In my mind there are two types of cooking: fine cuisine, and daily nourishment. Managing a household’s food and meals is a skill and an undertaking of its own, requiring a massive amount of knowledge and information gathering and inventory control — but one that’s often invisible. I’m thinking about the newsletters I read, many of them aimed at women, and how recipes and “what’s for dinner” are almost a currency in this group. So many open threads prompting, what are you making for dinner? Share your go-to meals! What’s your secret easy dinner? The cooking show I want to see is where the celeb chef is put in a real person’s kitchen, stocked exactly as it stands — sprouting onion, shriveled carrots, wilting parsley and all, and prepare a meal using only the equipment in the kitchen (which may or may not still be dirty from last night), satisfying to everyone in the family and not requiring too much time or attention.

I think part of our society’s challenge with food is that we’ve cuisine-ified daily dining expectations, thinking every meal should taste and look spectacular. Instagram plays into this; our society may have mocked people for posting their pretty meals online, but those contribute to social norms around what we should be eating and what it should look like. I expect this impacts the primary household cook regardless of gender, but also wonder whether the feminization of caregiving makes food norms weigh heavier on women?

Personally, I have had to work through a lot of internalized gender role expectations around food and being a caregiving partner for my husband. Unpacking this shit is the work of a lifetime but every piece purged from my psyche is a boon.

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

2 replies on “Recipes as embodied writing and care”

Honestly it’s probably simpler than that.

Prose is copyrightable, recipes aren’t.

That’s why cookbooks have buckets of prose, and recipe sites have 3,000 words on a recipe for boiling water.

😂 I’m sure that’s (a big) part of it! I think a lot of cookbooks are as much about the vibes as the recipes, especially travelogue style ones…

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