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(Almost) Nothing in Food Media is New

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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.)

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. 

Why it Was Time for Our New (Not)Recipes App
Why it Was Time for Our New (Not)Recipes App

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: 

How to Make Any Risotto in 5 Steps
How to Make Any Risotto in 5 Steps

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.