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Recipe Poetry or Practicality?

She said: I have a thing for everyday loveliness. When I was little and my mom baked batches of bread, I’d coyly request a slice from the prettiest loaf. In high school, I opted for cross country’s winding gravel roads rather than track’s monotonous cinder loop. And these days I stroll through Central Park if I can help it rather than take the subway. If, on rare occasion, I take the train home, I hop off a stop earlier than I ought, lugging my groceries several extra blocks just so I can emerge amid a cobblestone square with trees and blooms and not the usual street-side muck. Heck, I’ve even been known to scatter flowers atop my salads.

It only seems natural that I’d be drawn to recipes with a little character. Those far-and-few-between ones that that play loose and easy with language, that exude a bit of playfulness, that maybe even dance to their own rhythm of style and grammar, that are imbued with a touch of the writer’s personality.

What I don’t care for are recipes that leave either everything or nothing to the imagination. It’s not that I can’t appreciate the practicality of such recipes. I can. It’s like the shortest way home from the subway: tremendously efficient. They just bore the heck out of me. So indistinguishable are these uninspired instructions that even copyright law renders them immune from legal protection—unless an author so inextricably interjects herself into the prose that the recipe move into the realm of art.

But here’s the thing. A recipe needn’t be flowery or poetically epic to be filled with personality. Take the succinct recipes penned by the inimitable Laurie Colwin. Yes, she memorably blurred the line between ingredient list and instructions, but she was also fluent in the language of the everyday without being self-indulgent. We benefit not just from her culinary expertise but from her life itself. Note, if you will, how she channels Katharine Hepburn’s brownie recipe in just four dozen or so words. [Editor’s Note: Those of you who haven’t hoarded your copies of Gourmet magazine from the ‘80s might wish to seek out the collected works of Colwin, which includes the recently reissued Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, although this particular collection does not include the brownie recipe.]

There are, of course, others. M. F. K. Fisher. Ruth Reichl. Judy Rodgers. Fran Gage. Whether soft-spoken, plainspoken, or outspoken, each of them knows how to linger rather than dally over a description that unfailingly mirrors their thoughts, their cooking experiences, and, at times, some measure of their very being. Take Gage, who in The New American Olive Oil disregards more humdrum, requisite descriptions for caramelized onions and instead paints them “the color of a polished mahogany table.” What a lovely little interlude to happen upon while in the midst of making supper.

And that’s my point.

Yes, perhaps we’d all save a few seconds here and there if we dispensed with extraneous adjectives and explanations and set them aside to appreciate during a less rushed day. But here’s the thing: You may have every intention of doing so, but if you’re anything like me, it won’t happen. Life goes by pretty quickly. I prefer to cling to what loveliness there is when it happens, even if that means taking a slightly longer glance at that batter-splattered recipe ripped from a magazine long ago.

He said: Laurie Colwin. Kate Hepburn. Fudgy brownies. Mine is a losing proposition, if I ever saw one. If one of us is going to get strung up in the public square and poked with the business end of sharp farm tools, it surely isn’t going to be Renee. But here goes.

I enjoy beautiful words as much as the next cook. Maybe more, being a writer. I’ve banged my head against the wall countless times trying to find descriptive ways of explaining to you, dear readers, what a perfectly griddled pancake looks like or when onions are at a precise state of wilted-dom. But I’ve got to tell you, I like the division of church and state—or in this case, art and craft.

Gorgeous language is entirely welcome in a recipe, but come on—for God’s sake, not in the directions. Let’s keep it relegated to the headnote. That’s where all of the everyday prettiness—the art—Renee loves should live.

Now, I’ve never seen Renee cook, but I imagine it’s probably an act of supreme Zen meditation. I see her humming a Gershwin tune softly to herself, thrumming her fingers on the counter as she leans over a recipe, smiling at all those conjunction junctions, hooking words and phases and clauses and making them function. I wouldn’t be surprised if woodland creatures gather at her feet while birds twitter around her head, so at one with the prose is she. And the actual act of putting together a meal? Sheer fluidity Martha Graham would envy, I’m sure.

I, on the other hand, have every intention of cooking like that, and I always start that way. But 20 minutes later, I’ve usually discovered I’ve forgotten something at the grocery store, so I have to stomp around looking for a replacement. The One then asks, for the tenth time, “When will dinner be ready?” As the tension escalates, you’d think my cooking motto, no doubt brazenly tattooed across my ample chest, is, “No pot left behind,” because the counter, sideboard, and kitchen table are strewn with dirty cookware. And the sad thing is I’m the one who lives in the country part-time with a yard of woodland creatures. I’m the one with a huge kitchen. But with all the clanking of pans and cursing to the fates, nary a bird would dare cross our property line.

What does all of this have to do with the way a recipe is written? A lot. I like a recipe to be clear, concise, descriptive, and orderly—that’s the craft. I want to get in and out and get on with it. But that’s a hard thing to do when the ingredients list is embedded in the directions, like Colwin is wont to do. Huh? Or when there’s a lot of chatty Cathy me-me-me narrative going on, and I have to keep returning back to the recipe, wooden spoon dripping olive oil everywhere, while I run my index finger down the page trying to find my place again. I don’t mind snuggling up to a writer, having her take me by the hand through her recipe, her cooking domain. But when I have to sift through anecdotes about her husband’s eating habits and her kids’ preference for dark chocolate in between steps six and seven, it just mucks up the cooking process.

Speaking of numbered steps, I can’t fathom why so many recipes are bereft of them. Numbers are what make society run. (Try not having a social security number, license number, telephone number.) And they have an elegant logic that’s utterly failsafe: two follows one, three follows two, which follows one, and so forth. When a recipe is numbered, it makes for (pun intended) an easily digestible chunk of text. And face it, when you’re making cassoulet from LC recipe tester Cindi Kruth, you better believe you need plenty of number steps to make it through the end without plunging your head into duck fat and ending it all. For me, in the kitchen at least, it’s just the facts, ma’am.

Now, get me away from the stress of cooking a complicated, three-day recipe, or the frenetic pace of a quick weeknight meal, and I thoroughly enjoy being seduced by a recipe, my senses being tickled by letters that become words that become sentences that become, in the end, joy. But like most of my best reading, it’s done prone—in bed, on the couch, on the floor, in a chaise on the patio. Definitely not while standing facing the stove.

Tell us: What kind of recipe do you like?