I have been thinking a lot recently about food and language. It all started last summer with the Independence Day Parade in the little village of Greensboro, Vermont, when the former State Poet Laureate, Galway Kinnell, was ceremoniously driven on a float through Main Street and delivered to the library, where he gave a poetry reading to an appreciative audience.

The first poem he read was “Blackberry Eating”—a poem I’ve long cherished because it evokes so sensuously the pleasure of picking the fall blackberries in the woods all around us. But I’d never heard Galway read it aloud and I was once again struck by the power of the language of food. As he mouthed the words strengths, squinched, splurge they became the essence of blackberries and we were pulled into the “silent, startled, icy black language of blackberries in late September,” happily licking our lips.

Then I was asked to be on a panel at the Oxford Symposium, which takes place once a year, gathering food writers from all over, and the subject was to be on Food and Language. How could I resist? So it got me thinking even more about how we use—or don’t use—language to express our feelings about food.

As I looked at the literature, I couldn’t help but agree with the critic Clifton Fadiman who wrote in an introduction to M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating: “We Americans do not take gladly to the literature of gastronomy . . . We must feel there is something licentious or censorable about it.” Certainly I grew up in a household where it was considered impolite to talk about food at the table and we were always being told to shut the kitchen door so the cooking smells wouldn’t escape. Furthermore the food industry ever since the nineteenth century had been telling us that cooking was demeaning and that the poor little housewife shouldn’t have to stoop to such lowly work (so buy our products instead).

What a long way we’ve come in just about fifty years. Finally the veil has been lifted and we’re able to enjoy the art of cooking, to slap the dough around, massage the chicken with butter, and sizzle the garlic until it smells up the whole house. And to write about it with joy. There is also a lot of interesting investigative reporting going on that has alerted us to some of the current practices of the food industry, and we are so much more aware of what we eat thanks to this kind of writing

So good, evocative writing about food has been a part of our culture now for more than half a century, ever since M.F.K. Fisher first wrote ecstatically about picking and eating fresh peas to the sound of a cowbell in the Swiss Alps and, more practically, Julia Child described the signs of doneness in a roast chicken as “a sudden rain of splatters in the oven, a swelling of the breast, and a light puff of the skin, and the drumstick is tender when pressed and can be moved in its socket.”

But at the same time the art of writing a recipe—and it is an art—has not improved; in fact it has deteriorated. In the interest of saving space, magazines, newspapers, even most cookbooks have reduced recipe writing to a formula that isn’t even particularly effective and certainly isn’t sufficiently instructive.

For example, a typical recipe today will tell us, “In a bowl, combine the first mixture with the second mixture.” Why does the bowl have to come first? (That’s not even good English). What exactly is meant by “combine”? Do we stir, fold, toss, mix (aren’t these more accurate terms?)? And what is “the first mixture”? Is it the milk in the first step which was warmed with a little sugar (does that make it a mixture?)? And where is the second mixture? We have to go chasing around for that. Why not say the warmed milk and then refer to the batter or the dough, or whatever the second mixture is? That way we learn accepted culinary terms. Or use old fashioned, serviceable expressions, such as “the dry ingredients” or “the wet ingredients.” I also wonder, if they are trying to economize on space, why the directions constantly tell us to “Set aside.” What are we going to do: throw it out after we’ve done all that combining?

I also find the insistence on telling us the preparation time for a recipe is a joke. Who is doing the prep—Jacques Pépin or you or me? There would certainly be a difference, and anyway who cares! What I miss in these recipes is the voice of the teacher, empowering the home cook, enabling us to make our own judgments, and be creative about correcting, adding, and substituting. It is only through that kind of careful, creative language that we come to understand the heart and soul of good cooking.

10 Responses to “THE LANGUAGE OF FOOD”

  1. Charlotte says:

    Makes me also think of Robert Hass — one of my favorite lines from “Meditation at Lagunitas:”
    “There are moments when the body is as numinous
    as word, days that are the good flesh continuing.
    Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
    saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.”
    Lines I’ve been known to mutter under my breath …

  2. Kevin says:

    I find that I use constructions such as, “In a bowl, combine the first mixture with the second mixture.” Most often when adapting a recipe from someone else and I’m trying to avoid plagiarism by directly copying the original phrasing. I find myself far more irritated by having to specify “in a bowl” at all – as though you might mix your cake batter in a skillet, or that there’s something wrong with doing s oif you don’t have a bowl handy. Unfortunately I’ve found in five years of writing recipes and teaching cooking classes much of what I consider redundant is not at all redundant to novice cooks. I would much prefer to write something like “after adding the spice the fond will become coffee brown, at this point deglaze the pan with white wine,” but instead I must write, “after adding the spice the ‘fond’ (browned bits stuck to the pan) will become coffee brown, at this point ‘deglaze’ the pan by adding the white wine over medium heat and scraping up the ‘fond’ with a spatula.”

    I ceratinly keep my readers in mind assuming a certain degree of expertise in the readers of my blog and a much lower level of knowledge from readers of Cooking for Two.

  3. Irena says:

    If a recipe is written for a cook, all that is needed is an idea, for example, Pumpkin Soup: canned pumpkin, blood orange, fresh ginger, chicken broth,creme fraiche.Yummy.

  4. Leslie says:

    Your comments about the time required to perform a culinary task reminds me of something my mother and I used to chuckle over in Gourmet: at the end of the recipes for baked goods they would note that ‘keeps for 5 days in covered container’, or 6 days wrapped in foil, and so on. Why 5 and not 4 or 6? We used to laugh over this years ago: I don’t know if they continued the practice or not, and now it is a moot point, at least with Gourmet…

  5. Kathleen says:

    Many thanks Judith for voicing a similar frustration I experience when reading recipes. Imagine if Michelangelo Buonarotti wrote sculpting instructions in similar fashion! You’d think you were working up to a statue named “A Guy Standing, Holding a Rock in His Hand” instead of “David”.

  6. Mona says:

    I love reading your words. I have been married to a Chef for 14 years and I am working with him on writing a more evocative and sensual way of recipe writing……………

  7. Denise says:

    Judith, you are absolutely correct. And it is the lovely way you write your recipes that inspires me to cook every time I open your Cooking for One. No matter how tired I may be, I get out the pans and ingredients and enjoy my time in the kitchen as well as the meal.
    Thank you.

  8. PJ Hamel says:

    Thank you for bucking the recipe tide! I write recipes for King Arthur Flour, and continually try to squirm out of the computer software straitjacket in which I write – which REQUIRES prep times, times that are inevitably inaccurate, for the reasons you give. I refuse to write any sentence that isn’t something you’d actually speak; “In a bowl, place…” Indeed. I heard you speak at the Norwich Congregational Church last night, and quietly cheered your stand against the formulaic approach to food writing! And, since John Updike is my favorite writer of all time – there is NO ONE who could string words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, like Mr. Updike – I was delighted to hear that he was a pleasure to work with. Thanks for coming down to Norwich – and for continuing to fight the good fight. PJH

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