Jake Tilson – Notes on Recipe Design

Notes on recipe design from Jake Tilson's A Tale of 12 Kitchens: Family Cooking in Four Countries

Published recipes are like small poems. The literary and typographic rules that apply to them today have developed slowly. Over the centuries surprisingly few approaches to structuring a recipe have been tried.

When writing out a recipe for a friend it seems unnatural to separate the ingredients as a list in the order they are to be used. For a domestic cook it's also counterintuitive to translate the unmeasured handfuls, teacupfuls and dodgy oven temperatures into a more universal form. If an ingredient is missed out you can annotate the recipe later and your friends can call you up if a procedure isn't crystal clear. Equally strange would be to write an informative description or anecdote after the recipe title.

Published recipes today tend to adhere to a descending order of structured parts - title, headnote, servings (yield line), ingredients list, method (instructions) and variations. Some recipes also state the preparation time. Within each section lingers a minefield of grammatical rules and typographical conventions that need to be addressed. A recipe title should be short, seductive, and work well in an index

Headnotes are for bedside reading, providing background material and for somewhere for a writer to place an anecdote or to display their knowledge of artichoke varieties. Many nuts and bolts cookbooks do away with headnotes altogether. The ingredients list should be typographically separate from the headnote above, and the instructions below. To save space the lists often appear as two columns. The method (instructions) should be concise and use single paragraphs to break up the procedures in the recipe. Variations are for additional practical considerations, alternatives and add-ons.

These factors are merely the foundation for a successful recipe from which nuances of form can progress. A reference book, Recipes Into Type - A Hanbdbook for Writers and Editors (HarperCollins, 1993) by Joan Whitman and Dolores Simon, stretches across 258 pages to help with the other intricacies involved in getting a useable recipe onto someone else's kitchen counter. How did we arrive at such a compact literary form?

Cookbooks were printed as early as 1474 - De honesta vuluptate et valetudine (On Right Pleasures and Good Health) by Platina (1421-1481). The book contained many recipes from the earlier Tuscan manuscript by the cook Maestro Martino de Rossi (1450-1475) Libro de arte coquinaria. Another early cookbook is by Marcus Gabius Apicius, 1st century - Apicius de re Quoquinaria, printed in 1498 in Milan by Guillermus le Signere from recipes dating from AD 14. Earlier recipes were carved on Egyptian stone tablets, written on ancient Roman kitchen walls or handwritten as manuscripts.

For centuries a rather haphazard approach to collecting recipes by families and professional cooks developed, as they recorded and passed on their recipes. This rather unstructured, unplanned and disorganised approach was carried forth into early printed cookbooks - resulting in books that read like novels whose pages had been shuffled and rebound out of sequence. Ingredients quantities were often missing, no alphabetical order was applied, cooking times and temperatures were unable to be specified or not mentioned at all. Most early printed cookbooks would only have been of use to an experienced cook. A name and short text, with ingredients mentioned as required, was often all you were given.

As cookbooks began to sell in greater quantities to a domestic market in the 1700s their recipe structure became more organised. However, the common practice of borrowing , stealing or adapting recipes, or using entire sections of another author's book, meant that some recipes may have been written in the previous century. The origins of these might stretch back even further, as manuscripts. Confusion still reigned. Looking at books from the early 1800s there are inklings of organisation. Separate ingredients lists appear, as do paragraphs for each major part of the method, and even a yield line. There are indexes, chapters and alphabetical order. With authors such as Mrs Rundell, Eliza Acton and Mrs Beeton the recipe format we are familiar with today matured and settled down. Typographic conventions for structuring a recipe on a page also became set, as did much of the language for describing culinary procedure.

After the general adoption of a headnote, ingredients list and method, it's interesting to see cookbooks today that use other approaches. The wonderful evocative works of Elizabeth David use recipes that appear as tight, well formed gems - not an ingredient list in sight.

Cookbooks that bring together recipes from a wide range of sources occasionally bear the structure of the original recipes - echoes of the varied hands which wrote them - if the editor allows it. Good examples of this approach are the seminal cookbooks on seafood by Alan Davidson (Prospect Books) - some recipes have separate ingredients list, others incorporate them into the method.

Tilson, Jake (2006) A Tale of 12 Kitchens, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson




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