Long Reads

(Almost) Nothing in Food Media is New

August 19, 2016

Here is a line from a presentation our Creative Director, Kristen Miglore, and I gave this past May at the Southern Food Writing Conference called “Do We Cook with Recipes Anymore?”: 

Is a (not)recipe really not a recipe?

(No, actually—but that’s not the point.)

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The point is, we’d go on to say, that the phrase “not recipe”—and its newfound popularity—signals a shift in how we’re thinking about cooking. It also signals a shift back in time. If we define “recipes” as the traditional sort we see every day in food media and cookbooks—a headnote, a list of specced-out ingredients preceding a list of specced-out steps—then we can say that there is nothing new about no-recipe cooking.

And when we said that the popularity of “not recipes” signals a “shift back” we flipped to the following recipes, from Laurie Colwin (top) and Elizabeth David (bottom), both paragon embodiments of what we mean when we use the phrase in question. 

And that’s just looking inside of the rise of cookbooks and publishing—certainly humans have been cooking for themselves for eternity without having to be told to ready a pan or flip when ready or to set aside. Cooking without a recipe is older than all of us


Not only is it not new to the general, food-consuming public, it’s also not new to food media: You might know our Not Recipes column, or our app of the same name, plus a pair of winking parentheses. Or any number of these: 

It was the latter that inspired this tweet from our co-founder, Amanda Hesser. 

Here’s what happened next: 


The more-than-140 character version of “flimsy argument” is exactly what Kristen and I were trying to get across in our presentation: That, like many things in the world of food—take once ho-hum cereal, for example—we’re constantly making the old new again. To hone in on originality of concept alone is missing the point. 

What matters in resurfacing a concept, and what Amanda Hesser was referencing in her tweet, is the ‘why now’? What matters is how we package it and the value we add to it: In the case of cereal, the “why now?” could be when we think its surge in trendiness can sustain an entire business plan in Times Square. For Not Recipes, it was because we were seeing our readers already going off-script in the comment sections—and we knew we both had something to add to the cooking-from-the-hip conversation.

The successfulness of the venture may vary, but these are campaigns, and whole businesses, built on what a lot of us are—and have been—doing every day for years. 

Kristen, by the way, happens to be the squeaky wheel who caused us to launch our own Not Recipes column three years ago, who urged not that we’d be inventing anything, but rather that the way we presented the concept could be new. Here’s an excerpt from her January 2013 email, addressed to Amanda and Merrill, below: 

I had a new column idea after talking about a risotto KC [Kitchen Confidence] with Marian last night. Risotto is something I've started making without a recipe, and I think more people should understand it as a method with a few memorable talking points, and it wouldn't seem so intimidating. Basic dish frameworks that you can do with whatever you have—roasting a chicken, making a puréed soup, roasting vegetables, making a hash. Sort of like 3-Minute Gravy in spirit, but with photos.

It could be called something like "Not Recipes,” though I think the post title would probably be more important and catchy—I know non-recipes isn't a new idea (Ruhlman "doesn't believe in recipes”—whatever), but I think the way we present it could be new, especially with James [Ransom’s] photos for each step. Here's an example I wrote up last night:

The following example in her email became Food52’s Not Recipes launch post, seen here: 


At the beginning of our presentation, Kristen and I asked a gimme question—a total softball: How many of you have cooked without a recipe in the past week?

Every hand in the room went up. 

The reasons these hands went up in the air could have been because of us. But it’s more likely we were only a small part of the picture: A few hands likely raised because of Michael Ruhlman and his Ratio whatever, a few because of Rachael Ray’s No-Recipe Zone feature in her magazine. More still raised, perhaps, because of the conversational tone of how to cook the dishes presented on Ideas in Food’s blog—or because of the blog called No Recipes, launched in 2007. These have all been cited as fathers and mothers of the “no recipe” concept, at least as popularized in mainstream media—the rest of us fighting for right of primogeniture. Or maybe that’s just how some members of the audience learned to cook. 

Next year the question we ask will be different: How many of you have cooked an entire meal in the microwave, or made a coulis, or covered something—anything—in a think blanket of pastry in the past week? Food publications of the world: Ready your editorial teams.

9 Comments

krusher August 23, 2016
I am with Amanda Hesser in all of this. I have just read the many wise words of Jacques Pepin and noted his belief that you follow a recipe initially perhaps if it involves a new technique for example. After that you intuitively cook to present an edible, delightful dish. For me that is true. I start most meals with the available ingredients and build from there. Freshness, nutritious content etc are paramount. My challenge right now is cooking for one for 70% of my meals. In my retirement, I am loving the challenge. Food52 I love your work.
 
NoRecipes August 21, 2016
It's ironic how things have come full circle. When I started in No Recipes, there wasn't much demand for my food frameworks. Everyone was looking for 5 ingredient, 3 step, Ikea-manual-foolproof instructions. As one commenter pointed out, it takes some foundational culinary knowledge to cook without recipes. As another pointed out, it also takes some confidence to freestyle. The last thing I'd add is that it takes inspiration to cook without recipes. It's my hope that collectively, those of us in the home cooking space can bridge the gap between "simple, yet soulless recipes" and "I need to go to culinary school to make this" .
 
maryaskew August 21, 2016
Or we could just call this activity "cooking" ? I really think "cooking without a recipe" depends on comfort with one's own skills acquired by cooking regularly.. Andrea Nguyen made a sound point when she referred to "a common body of technical knowledge" and I believe one acquires that knowledge either from informal and formal instruction from other cooks, cookbooks, tv shows, schools and practice. Precise written instructions from well-written recipes has allowed millions to learn to cook while eating well.
 
Andrea N. August 20, 2016
How I often relish old-fashioned cookbooks that boil down recipes to just a few sentences, expecting cooks to know how to execute certain foundational steps. There was a common body of technical knowledge and pantry items. Nowadays our kitchens and tables are much more adventurous so the key is to explain things so people understand the connection between say, risotto and congee. Then they can cook with confidence, without super detailed recipes. That said, I still do love writing and reading recipes because they are edible journeys.
 
judy August 20, 2016
I kind of grew up on Mrs Beaton's My dad was a no recipe excellent home cook. They were always just a jumping off point-but more often than not-when he had a question about how to he would reach for Mrs Beaton. For me It was Joy of Cooking. I devoured her sections on how to with just about everything, including canning and setting the table. From there I have become a not a recipe home cook that does a pretty good job, thank you very much. But Food sites like Food52 are staples of my week to find great recipes to jump from. Even today. I have 2 refrigerator crisper bins (and then some) overflowing with herbs from around the world. I can make just about any cuisine with just about any flavor profile whenever i want. And still I love to explore for new ideas. Thanks Food52
 
stingraystirs August 19, 2016
Nice piece. Favorite line "To hone in on originality of concept alone is missing the point." <br /><br />
 
Erin M. August 19, 2016
Had to speak up, as someone who writes a lot of recipes - but I absolutely cook without them just as often. All cooking (+ even baking!) can be adaptable if you understand those core steps (risotto being a great example). The truth is, even a well-written recipe can be a "not recipe" - it can totally just be a jumping off point for someone as they tweak and maneuver it into something completely different. Anything cooks can do to encourage people back into the kitchen - be it a recipe, a discussion of the method, or standard tips + tricks is worth trying, in my book!
 
Patric K. August 19, 2016
Really interesting piece. It seems to me that strict recipe writing was a necessary step we had to go through. When I was researching 19th century cookbooks I kept coming across slightly jarring units of measurement like a half bushel of tomatoes for catsup or "a piece of soda the size of a pea" for biscuits. We had to get more uniform than that before we could choose not to use recipes at all. Of course, the French have always had a term for improvised cooking. They call it la cuisine au pif.
 
Nancy August 19, 2016
Very down to earth (except the snarky & amusing twitter exchanges). <br />Takes confidence to cook this (good old) way. <br />Pretty soon we'll be back to grandmothers-nana's-bubbie's handful of this and pinch of that :)