What to Cook

How George Carlin Changed Recipe Writing

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It's Recipe Writing Week at FOOD52 -- so why are we talking about George Carlin?

george carlin

The late, legendary comedian George Carlin was as outspoken about nonsense lingo like "jumbo shrimp" as he ever was about religion or politics, and he mercilessly skewered the excesses and misdirections of the English language in his routines. He was like William Safire, but with a lot more swearing.

Carlin may have thought when he complained about "rain events" or "boarding processes" that he was shouting into a vacuum, but with at least one of his rants (and surely more), he's made a difference. He may yet topple one of the cluttered words that so infuriated him:

That's another complaint of mine -- too much use of this prefix "pre". It's all over the language now — "pre"-this, "pre"-that, place the turkey in a "preheated" oven. It's ridiculous! There are only two states an oven can possibly exist in: Heated or unheated! "Preheated" is a meaningless fucking term! -- George Carlin, 1992

Note that his argument has nothing to do with fighting for or against turning on the oven well in advance of putting food inside. Carlin doesn't care -- no matter how far in advance you do it, you're still just heating the oven.


Here's where the recipes come in.

Over Thanksgiving 2006, Todd Coleman, then the new Executive Food Editor of Saveur, was watching a George Carlin marathon on HBO with his brother and saw the bit, from Carlin's 1992 comedy special "Jammin' in New York".

Todd Coleman

"I thought 'My god, he's absolutely right. I'm going to change it'," Coleman recently told me. He did so immediately, and preheat was replaced by heat in the January 2007 issue of Saveur. "Back of the house dictates can get musty, but people are loathe to change them," Coleman said. But there was a new editorial regime at the magazine, and they were looking to shake things up. (Plus, with space at a premium, hacking off a prefix is much easier than adding anything new.)

When Amanda and Merrill launched FOOD52 in 2009, they were all about paradigm shifts too -- and Merrill's husband Jonathan is a George Carlin fan. So from the start, FOOD52's house style (as much as a crowd-sourced website can have a house style) has been in the Carlin mold: down with preheat! If you flip through The FOOD52 Cookbook or its precursor The Essential New York Times Cookbook, you'll see.

amanda & merrill

On preheating.

The word preheat has been around since 1862, and used in the context of home cooking from around 1915 (per Jesse Sheidlower, Editor-at-Large of the Oxford English Dictionary).

But in the first half of the 20th century, many recipes still didn't explicitly prompt cooks to turn the oven on. It was assumed that they would read ahead and notice Bake in a moderately slow oven in step 3, for example. In modern recipes, ample warning -- not just to turn on the oven, but to pre-turn it on -- has become the norm. (Food historians out there -- feel free to chime in.) But that's starting to change.

It's natural to feel attached to the familiar preheat -- Julia Child told us to and so did The Joy of Cooking. It's in the fabric of our education as cooks; in baking recipes we've followed all our lives. Who is Carlin to tear that down?

But you know he's right. When a recipe merely instructs Heat the oven to 350°F, will anyone really be confused about what to do? As Safire himself said, "What cook pops a pie into an unpreheated oven?"

Many of the big food publications -- Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, The New York Times -- still tell us to preheat, characters be damned. But we smaller, fast-moving types are setting the stage for a George Carlin-fueled recipe revolution.

george carlin


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