Regarding weights and measures, England had a bunch of legislation on the books, but no unified and consistent system until the British Weights and Measures Act of 1824 – about 20 years before Acton’s book was published. America, on the other hand, decided it would go ahead and figure out its own system of weights and measures, despite recommendations from Francophile Thomas Jefferson, who liked the metric system. That, by the way, was rolled out in France in 1799. If you look at cocktail recipes to this day, there’s almost always one set of instructions for US measurements, and another developed for the metric system – which means that you’re never making a completely faithful version of a drink if you swap between the two. So, although we take it for granted today when we see consistent volume or weight measurements on a recipe, there were very few consistent standards even a century or two ago, which actually lends a bit of curb appeal to all those relational recipes that just threw measurements out the window.
Now let’s talk about time – right – Acton famously included “cooking time” on all her recipes. Well, it might surprise you to learn that until the middle of the 1800s – and for poor families quite a bit later – nobody besides the uber rich could afford a clock in their home – let alone one that was portable enough to be moved to the kitchen. To me, this doesn’t so much invalidate Acton’s recipes as it emphasizes the importance of making informed estimates about things like the passage of time. Even if it’s aspirational, Acton gives her readers a target to shoot for, which in itself was revolutionary.
Finally, we have the issue of heat (or temperature). I won’t dwell on this too long, but suffice it to say that Acton’s cooking was all done on wood or coal stoves, so there was no such thing as setting the oven to 350 for one hour. That wouldn’t come along until much later, and since I just promised you that we’d be moving along to cocktails, which don’t require cooking, let’s fast forward to the last decade or two, where one popular drinks historian makes an important contribution to beverage recipes and our ability to re-create them.
Wondrich, Mr. Boston, and Beyond
Enter David Wondrich, good ol’ Davey-boy. Cocktail historian, noteworthy for his work at Esquire and just about every other respectable print and digital publication that has a regular drinks column. He is, of course, the author of two very important books, Imbibe! – which is a great entry point to spirits and cocktails – and Punch, which gets real deep and historical and has, in my opinion, even better writing than his first book.
Now, Wondrich faced a question that pretty much anyone interested in cocktails has raised at some point, which is: what did these classic drinks taste like when they were first invented? The first step, of course, is to dig up some sort of documentation that reveals a cocktail’s ingredients and measurements, and hopefully even its origins. But if you’re a true, primary source historian like Wondrich (and not like all these lazy bloggers and journalists I complain about during our featured cocktail segment), you might rightly be faced with a recipe that involves measures like “flagons” or “gills” or “wine glasses.” In both his books, he provides easy conversions for all sorts of arcane weights and measures, which is what makes them useful both as historical texts and as recipe manuals.
Wondrich’s books – as texts that bridge history and craft – are quite different from many others that were popular earlier in the century. Here, I think of the Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide which takes the form of a reference book like a dictionary or encyclopedia with short entries about each drink. Hold up Mr. Boston next to Imbibe!, and it looks like apples and oranges…kinda because it is. While Wondrich leans heavily on historical context, Mr. Boston and similar texts care more about the materials (and maybe a few sketchy notes on the process) needed to produce a given drink.
This reminds me quite a bit of the difference between Apicius, which we discussed in Part I, and Modern Cookery. Apicius, like Mr. Boston, is targeted at professionals – people who might consult it as a part of their day-to-day occupation (and perhaps even under a deadline). Books like Imbibe! and Modern Cookery are much more concerned with giving tools to people who are operating in their own homes – and if you’ve made it this far, I think it’s kind of cool to appreciate some of the heritages from which we can trace today’s popular cocktail books.
Like Acton, Wondrich begins Imbibe! with a list of tools and techniques that anyone who plans to read the ensuing pages will need to know or reference, and this explicit definition of terms is important because the assumption is that the reader hasn’t attended culinary school (or in Wondrich’s case, arcane cocktail school).
Going back to Brillat-Savarin, and even further to the Epicurean atomistic physics we covered in Part I, I think one way to distinguish these two different types of recipe books from one another (and to value them each for their own sake) is to think of texts like Apicius and Mr. Boston as being concerned with the quantity and type of ingredients, and texts like Imbibe! and Modern Cookery as being concerned with how those ingredients are manipulated and configured (and why). So the next time you purchase a book of recipes, or come across a sexy recipe blog on the internet, I’d encourage you to try and pass what you read through that filter. It could tell you what the recipe and its author are best-suited to communicate, and it could also offer insights on what might be missing in order for you to truly grasp the process.
The Role of Narrative in Recipes
Before I wrap up this episode with a list of my best practices for writing a well-crafted recipe drawing on all the stuff we’ve learned in the first two installments of this series, I’d like to take a quick pit-stop in our current time to consider a recipe trend I find charming – but only to a point.
Here’s when this trend first really occurred to me – and let me preface this by saying I do not own a television and I do not watch network TV on the reg, so I’m often oblivious to certain popular trends until they smack me in the face. That’s exactly what happened here.
It was New Year’s 2018, and my wife and I were in Lisbon for a trip she was taking as a business school requirement. And, wouldn’t you know it – I happened to contract just about the worst case of Norovirus that anyone has ever had the pleasure to meet. So there I was, lying feverishly in a hotel room in a foreign country, and the station I told my wife to leave on while she left for the day happened to be the Food Network – but not the good ol’ American Food Network – remember, we’re in Europe, so I was watching some UK version of the Food Network and they happened to be airing an all-day marathon of a show called Siba’s Table.
Now, I grew up watching chefs like Emeril Legassi and others who did cooking demonstrations – often in front of live studio audiences – but where the show was centered wholly around the food. But Siba had a style all her own. All I can remember about that day is lapsing in and out of fever dreams, listening helplessly (for I could not reach the remote) about how we were making this dish because Siba’s in-laws were visiting, and we needed to make this dessert because she was being visited by a childhood friend who had a mango tree in her backyard, and all the while we got to watch her husband entertain their two kids while Siba shopped for ingredients and prepped the dishes.
I don’t know if it was the cramps and cold sweats or the deluge of unnecessary plot lines that had me more bent out of shape that day, but I continue to be fascinated by the use of narrative (or story arcs) in recipes, and very quick to point out when someone goes overboard.
The Pioneer Woman
The U.S. has its own version of Siba’s Table in the form of The Pioneer Woman, who not only has a show with a similar format on The Food Network, but she also has a line of cheaply made cookware and serving ware that will break if you look at it the wrong way – I can tell you that from personal experience. In essence, the host, Ree Drummond is out there on her Oklahoma ranch living the American dream. Did the kids just get done wrastlin’ in the hay field? Let’s whip up grandma’s famous lemonade! Is the husband tired from a day milking horses out in the south pasture? Time for some deep fried shepherd’s pie! And for dessert? Well, you’ll get a heapin’ helpin’ of staged, scripted banter that somehow makes you feel like you’re just another member of the family.
I think you can see where I’m going with this. At a certain point, a recipe is no longer a recipe when you spoon feed it to people in the form of “info-tainment.” It may have been a recipe at one point, but when the delivery is somehow contingent on filling a 20 minute time slot to feed you ads…well, I’m gonna go ahead and unsubscribe.
When and How Narrative Can Work
That’s why I began this episode with Pablo’s wonderfully thoughtful and beautifully articulated story about his Sherry Martini with Pickled Morels. Let’s walk through it so I can show you what I mean in light of Siba’s Table and The Pioneer Woman:
Was there a story or an initiating incident? Yep. The story was, it’s Spring, and spring means morel mushrooms. Pablo likes to forage them – it’s a good excuse to get some exercise outdoors.
Was there a problem to solve or a reason why he made this recipe? Absolutely. He foraged some morels that were dry, and he was able to re-purpose them by pickling them and using them as a cocktail garnish.
Was useful information conveyed? Yes. Not only did Pablo give us the cocktail recipe, which he customized using carefully chosen ingredients from his bar and explaining why he selected each one, but he also gives us a bonus recipe in the form of his pickling liquid. He also told us about Morels and how to identify them.
I love a good story – but all good stories are real, just like Pablo’s, not constructed in order to prevent you from changing the channel. Remember that last detail of Brillat-Savarin’s favorite fondue recipe?
Call for the best wine, which will be copiously drunk, and you will see miracles.
There’s no doubt that he himself had done so one day while serving or enjoying that very recipe and he was consequently the participant in or witness of some sort of minor miracle – or at least a cheese-and-wine-induced hallucination. It might seem silly, but even this is a “real” detail that I don’t mind encountering in a recipe because it teaches me something about the delicious potential that can be unlocked when you can arrange the atoms and void in your ingredients in just the right way, and in that sense, it is extremely valuable.
Tips for Writing Great Recipes
Now it’s time to see if we can synthesize what we’ve learned over the past two installments of this “Art of the Recipe” series and turn them into a few helpful tips that will help you to be a better recipe writer the next time someone asks you for the secrets behind your favorite dish or drink.
Tip #1 – Be Careful What You Assume
Jerry Thomas might have assumed that the ingredients in his “Gin & Pine” cocktail were pretty obvious, but here we are, a century and a half later, scratching our heads. This is the “think about your audience” instruction that all writers need to consider before publishing something because your end product is going to be vastly different based on the assumptions you make about what your audience knows and has access to regarding tools and ingredients. So, if you make an assumption – make it a good one, based on reflection and evidence.
Tip #2 – Be specific about your materials LEGGI TUTTO