What is a recipe? While this seems to be a simple question, with recipes falling in the category of 'I know one when I see one', I'm finding it a harder question to nut out than I thought. The following is some slightly scattered and unformed thoughts I've had.
The word recipe itself is used in many different ways. In the past, it was just as likely to refer to a medical formula, as food. In fact, according to Goody (1977), recipe comes from the Latin verb, to take and was originally used by doctors at the top of prescriptions - as in the recipe was for a medicine you should take. We also use the word recipe as a metaphor, for example, something can be a recipe for disaster (or success) . . . and I'm sure there are other metaphors I just can't think of at the moment.
Recipes used to be passed down orally and were almost certainly closely connected to the process of teaching someone to cook (Goody 1977). This teaching method would have involved an interplay between teacher and student, where skills were physically performed, practised and observed. Goody contends that this oral tradition reproduced social norms and was part of the process of socialisation around food. It was how an individual learnt about 'normal' and 'acceptable' cooking practices. But it was also a flexible and informal process. In contrast, by writing down the instructions for cooking a meal -- by creating a written recipe --- the process of cooking becomes standardised and codified. Measurements, timings and temperatures are included and along with this standardisation comes the sense of the 'correct' way to cook a specific food (Goody 1977; Symons 2006).
Codification can be both constraining and liberating. Once a recipe is written down, with instructions on how to cook a meal, there comes a 'proper' way to do something. Seeming to be objective and neutral, the recipe renders some versions of the cooked meal right and others wrong. The recipe as a norm, instructs us about which types of food and ways of cooking are acceptable within the society in which we live. But can it also mark as incorrect and unacceptable other cooking practices and ingredient combinations which may depart from the privileged norm?
However, the written recipe can also be liberating, crossing social and cultural boundaries. As Appadurai (1988) notes "recipes sometimes move where people may not" (p.7). His (I have to say beautifully written) research examines the evolution of a national cuisine in India, part of which occurred because of the movement of recipes across gender, caste, ethnic and class boundaries.
One definition I came across, is that the recipe is a written formula for mixing ingredients: a "list of constituents followed by a summary description of the processes to which they are subjected" (Goody 1977). This makes it a procedural and purposeful text (Halliday & Christian 1999). However, underneath this formality and practicality, there is also a relationship between the writer and reader. I know that when I was publishing recipes here, in magazines and through An Honest Kitchen, I found the process became easier but also more meaningful when I developed a sense of the audience I was working with. I know that recipes include a representation of the writer / cook, through the choice of language, processes, ingredients, attitude and judgement. But I wonder if readers can also feel themselves represented in a recipe? And if so, what form does that representation takes?
Another point, noted by Halliday & Christian (1999) is that, unlike many other forms of writing, recipes contain very few grammatical metaphors. While writers like Nigel Slater and Claudia Roden use evocative language in their recipes, the purpose is still to instruct - a type of communication which limits metaphor. A recipe is different from a poem. Of course. And yet, I think it also differs in many ways from technical writing and other forms of instruction?
You could say that a recipe includes all the ingredients and instructions you need to cook / make a dish. But that is not quite accurate. Most recipe instructions rely on conventions and assumed knowledge. If you've never separated an egg, then why would think that particular instruction meant removing the yoke from the white (and how would you even go about such a feat)? What does 'cook on medium' actually mean, or 'don't overmix', 'brown the meat', 'cover tightly with a lid' and on it goes? Instead a recipe contains standardised instructions, that tap into the readers' existing knowledge and sense of cooking (Goody 1977).
And that's as far as I've got.
I told you my thoughts were unformed and scattered . . . over to you, what is a recipe?
Appadurai, A., 1988. How to make a national cuisine: Cookbooks in contemporary India. Comparative Studies in Society & History, 30(1), pp.3–24.
Goody, J., 1997. The recipe, the Prescription and the Experiment. In C. Counihan & P. Van
Esterik, eds. Food and Culture: A Reader. New York, Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 78–90.
Halliday, M. & Christian, M.M., 1999. Construing Experience Through Meaning, London: Continuum.
Symons, M., 2006. Grandmas to gourmets. Food, culture and society, 9(2), pp.179–200.