When food is more than just cooking.
A recipe is full of quantities, measurements, and instructions, but it’s not just a formula. Often, it’s a memory—of that week you were in Florence, or of your mom baking cookies, or of your homeland across the world. Which is to say: Often, it’s personal.
A headnote—that blurb at the top before the ingredient list—shows this better than anything. "The best headnotes not only give you a sense of the recipe and why this particular recipe is noteworthy or challenging or different from all the rest," Food52 Co-Founder Amanda Hesser said. "Great headnotes also give you a sense of the author and why you should trust them. I don’t want to spend time in my kitchen with a voiceless formula telling me what to do." Whether it’s two sentences or six paragraphs, this introduction is where you can meet the person behind the recipe.
But it hasn’t always been this way. If you scan classic cookbooks, a lot of them have microscopic headnotes, or none at all.
“Before World War II, the most-read American cookbooks were compendiums: practical cooking bibles, like Fannie Farmer and The Joy of Cooking, which offered hundreds of recipes without headnotes,” food writer John Birdsall told me. “In the 1940s there was a small but growing appetite for more literary recipe books, in which recipe headnotes established context and even included snippets of memoir.”
Since then, that appetite has only continued to grow. In her 2010 food publishing manual, Will Write for Food, Dianne Jacob writes: “These days, headnotes in books and often on websites contain narratives and read like novels.”
And I do read cookbooks like novels—cover to cover, standing on the subway, lying in bed. To me, the headnote has become the most thought-provoking, medium-pushing part of a recipe. But I’m a recipe developer and write headnotes for a living, so I’m biased.
Other people just want to get to the cooking part. For example, Princeton University history professor Kevin Kruse tweeted this last week:
It didn’t take long for his message to make its way to the people he was critiquing, and many of them took issue with what he said.
Her six-message thread went on to say: “It's mostly women telling these stories. Congratulations, you've found a new, not particularly original, way to say ‘shut up and cook.’”
Sharma, who grew up in India and now lives in the United States, writes recipes that celebrate those two countries. In Season, he talks about how he hopes “to erase labels like ‘ethnic’ and ‘exotic’ in the West by shedding more light on some of these ingredients.” And his headnotes are the place to do it.
I touched base with Sharma over the phone and asked why this tweet in particular felt frustrating. For him, it was a matter of framing. “It didn’t offer a lot of constructive criticism,” he said. “I feel like when people say something negative, it’s better to reframe the whole thing into something positive—to say, 'Hey, this is what I like about cooking websites,' and to leave it at that, versus saying, ‘This is what I hate.’” He paused. “But, I mean, I know it’s Twitter.”
In the spirit of something positive, I asked Sharma what he likes about headnotes. A lot, apparently: how they offer background, provide useful information on ingredients and techniques, tell personal stories, and make the experience of reading recipes more enjoyable.
“Old cookbooks didn’t have a lot of headnotes, some didn’t have any,” he pointed out. “A lot of them are just recipes with instructions, and they do feel a little cold sometimes. But you get a sense that the time was different.”
Indeed, cookbooks—just like magazines and newspapers—generally have shorter headnotes. They also have space constraints. And websites don’t. For David Tamarkin, digital director of Epicurious—one of the oldest and most respected recipe-focused websites around—this shift from analog to digital is huge.
“In food magazines, you’re constantly cutting text to fit the page, and headnotes are a natural page to cut from,” he told me. “I just came out with a book in December. Whenever I had to cut from a page, I cut from the headnote first.” Meanwhile, on a website, there’s “an infinite amount of space. There is no page.”
What’s more, accessing a recipe in a cookbook is different from accessing a recipe on a website. With the former, you open the cookbook and flip to the index. With the latter, you might go to a specific website, but it’s likely you go to Google first.
“You can’t talk about this without talking about SEO,” Tamarkin said. “You can’t talk about this without talking about Google.”
SEO is industry speak for search engine optimization—or, how to maximize one’s online visibility. In other words, if you publish a recipe for chicken soup, how do you make sure that when people search for chicken soup recipe, yours ends up as close to the top of those 397,000,000 results as possible? It’s complicated. And it’s always changing.
“Google recently made the decision to surface recipes with long headnotes,” Tamarkin said. Which means, these days, the world’s most popular search engine is “favoring more and more blogs with long stories over recipe websites with short headnotes.”
To give you an idea of this, Tamarkin and I Googled chocolate chip cookie recipe while we were on the phone. The top results: a couple of expected big names (Toll House, Allrecipes), but mostly small blogs with lengthy narratives leading up to the recipe itself.
In this sense, a headnote isn’t just about the recipe. It’s about how we find recipes in the first place, how the publishing industry is changing, and how readers and writers and editors aren’t the only factors in play.
“I understand the frustration,” Tamarkin said. “Because when you’re putting in chocolate chip cookie recipe, you’re looking for a recipe—you’re not looking for a story. If you were looking for an article or a story, you would put in chocolate chip cookie essay.”
Of course, Tamarkin runs a recipe website, and it’s his job to think about stuff like this. For people like Kruse, who teaches history, it’s not.
“The response to the tweet was a real education for me and I’ve learned a lot about the issue,” Kruse wrote to me over email. “I can see now that these narratives provide a purpose beyond the business needs of such sites, in that they let creators—especially ones from marginalized communities—provide their perspective and lay claim to their experience. I certainly didn’t mean to cause anyone any offense and I sincerely regret that my ignorance of the form (and the larger debate around it) came off as dismissive in any way.”
Even The New Yorker parodied the long recipe intro last year: "I sense that you’re trying to scroll down to find the recipe without reading this preamble I was kind enough to write for you. Yes, I dabble in creative writing and must insist that you enjoy this incredibly detailed tangential anecdote about the muffins before I tell you how to make them."
Complaining about recipes—and the way they’re written—isn’t anything new. Twitter has just made it a lot easier. So has the fact that countless recipes are now available at zero cost. As Genius Recipes columnist Kristen Miglore pointed out: "We’ve forgotten that being able to find recipes (and stories and other content) for free is a relatively new way of life. What we all do have is a choice in where we get our recipes—bookstores, direct recipe searches on sites like Food52, relying on whatever Google surfaces and getting mad about it (and, with that choice, how directly we pay for them)."
The getting mad part seems to be something every recipe developer is familiar with.
“I've heard every complaint under the stars,” Dining In author and New York Times columnist Alison Roman told me. “And I've definitely seen comments and tweets like this before.” But, she continued, that’s just part of the job. “One thing I've learned writing recipes and cookbooks is: You're not going to please everybody. You're either going to be too long-winded or not informative enough or too personal or not personal enough.”
So what’s a recipe writer to do? For Roman, it’s about writing the kind of recipes she would want to find in a newspaper or magazine or cookbook. “Now I almost treat a headnote like I'm the only one who's reading it,” she said.
The irony, of course, is that Roman is one of the most-read people around. Which is probably why she believes that, like everything else, online feedback should be taken with a grain of salt. Preferably flaky.
“I would never let a comment like that impact my work,” she said. “And I hope other people don't either.”