Ruminations RU_FINN_RECIPEMEAN_FI_001_1

How Does A Recipe Mean?

Interpreting the recipe as a text


In his classic work How Does a Poem Mean?,1 John Ciardi maintained that a poem cannot be defined by dictionaries or understood simply by reading or memorizing it. It can be known only through experience. The question we should ask, he writes, is not what a poem means, but how it means. “It is the experience, not the Final Examination that counts.”

Ciardi’s advice should apply with like force to recipes. There are no final examinations for recipes (except, I can say with some disappointment, in culinary school), but a recipe, like a poem, invites a reader to perform it. A recipe, like any and every text, anticipates a reader — indeed, imagines an ideal reader. Just as a constitution anticipates citizens and indeed tells them how to be(come) a citizen, a recipe anticipates a cook and indeed tells them how to (be a) cook.2 A reader is always free, of course, to reject the invitation of a constitution (to be a citizen), or a recipe (to be a cook). A reader may desert or quit a recipe in favor of another or none at all, just as a reader of a poem may set it aside. In both instances, though, the reader (if in such cases one is a reader at all) abandons the recipe/poem without knowing what it means.

Food studies scholars have long disagreed about whether recipes are essentially prescriptive or latitudinarian in terms of their interaction with their reader/cook. Some scholars adopt the view that recipes can claim little to no authority over a reader because a cook is always free to venture from the script: “cooks change a recipe at will, leaving out ingredients they don’t have or that they don’t want or adding ingredients that seem to fit.”3 For these scholars, “reading a recipe is an active process, be it reading and choosing recipes to make in the future or reading the recipe as you cook, turning the words on the page into action.”4 The reader/cook approaches the recipe from the vantage of choice, or rather, the power to make choices — “ingredients can be substituted or added at whim, and directions can be changed. To many, this is the joy of cooking, granting freedom from the restrictions of a recipe and making the reader aware of the act of creation in cooking.”5

Others, myself included, have argued that this perspective sometimes fails to account for certain types of recipes, and certain kinds of readers, who, like M.F.K. Fisher, “want to be told.”6 These scholars emphasize the categorical, inflexible elements of recipes. Jessamyn Neuhaus, for example, observes that “recipes are by their very nature prescriptive: they demand a certain set of actions, performed in a certain sequence, to produce a certain product.”7 Recipes should be approached therefore as a type of prescriptive rhetoric, or as a literature that reiterates and (re)inscribes (with varying degrees of success) “a powerful set of social norms,” not only about gender or domesticity, but also about how to cook.8

These quarrels are fundamentally not about what recipes mean, but how they mean. As Ciardi writes, “A boy burning with ambition to become a jockey does not study a text on zoology. He watches horses, he listens to what is said by those who have spent their lives around horses, he rides them, trains them, feeds them, curries them, pets them. He lives with intense feelings toward them.” To know how a poem means, Ciardi tells us, one must engage it. A poem requires more than a reading. It requires our attention.

To pay attention is to (at)tend to someone or to some thing. As one of my teachers, the noted political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, once wrote: “[Tending] implies active care of things close at hand, not mere solicitude. … [T]he crucial point is that tendment is tempered by the feeling of concern.”9 To tend, both colloquially and in the particular sense Wolin describes, is to care for some thing, to show solicitude and concern. But to attend to means also to pay attention. Attention is “a constant vigilance of the spirit.” Attention is “concentration on the present moment.” Attention to the minuscule moment is what opens us to the possibility of seeing beyond ourselves “by making us attentive to the infinite value of each instant.”10

In the same way, to know what a recipe means, one must do much more than read it. A recipe cannot be known simply by memorizing or diagramming it. One must attend to a recipe. Speaking somewhat casually, “to attend to” is a performative verb. A recipe is performative in the way that a poem, Ciardi insists, is performative. Just as “Bitzer’s definition of a horse was a dictionary definition … put almost exclusively in terms of classification,” close adherence to the literality of any recipe fails to tell us about the experience of food. A recipe’s meaning is located not in the text but in the experience. How a recipe means is how it is performed. The meaning of a recipe finds is not in the text, or even in reading, but rather in the experience of performing the text into being. One has to cook a recipe to know how it means.

But neither can a recipe be known simply by cooking it word for word. There is a difference between cooking by numbers and cooking from experience.

An example may help to illustrate this:

Consider Julia Child’s classic recipe for Soupe à l’oignon. The recipe first appears in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking,11 published in 1961, and already we have a hint about how a recipe means. The first word in the title, Mastering, implies an active, engaged enterprise. One masters by doing, or by learning to do by doing. We can no more master the art of cooking simply by reading about how to cook — not even by reading Julia’s book — than we can master the art of painting by reading books about how to paint. No less important, the last word in the title is just as suggestive. As used in the title, we might read Cooking as the object of study or something to be studied, but note that Child did not call the book Mastering the Art of French Food, or Mastering the Art of French Cuisine. The word “cooking” implies an injunction to the reader to do more than just read: the injunction plainly is to cook, to do.

The injunction is even plainer when Child prepares the dish on just the second episode of the first season of her revolutionary television show, The French Chef. The episode is not titled “French Onion Soup,” or “Julia’s French Onion Soup.” It is entitled “Your Own French Onion Soup,” and throughout the episode Julia urges the viewer “to add your own touches.”12 We cannot make a recipe our own simply by reading it, or even by cooking it as written. A recipe means like a poem means in yet another way: Ciardi describes a poem as “a dynamic, living thing.” “One is never done with it: every time he looks he sees something new and it changes even as he watches.” Anyone who likes to read recipes, and to cook, must recognize that sentiment. I have never cooked Julia’s Soupe à l’oignon without changing it in one way or another. I don’t think Julia would mind.

Julia’s recipe for onion soup is evocative and alluring. Just reading it gives one a sense of pleasure and anticipation. But it also requires both the attentiveness and the judgment of the cook. The opening line, for example, advises that “The onions for an onion soup need a long, slow cooking in butter and oil, and then a long, slow simmering in stock for them to develop the deep, rich flavor which characterizes a perfect brew.”

Immediately we must make a decision. What kinds of onions? The recipe calls for yellow onions, but this tells us little. The varieties and complexities of onions are many. An onion, Robert Farrar Capon reminds us, “is a thing, a being, just as you are.”13 Perhaps we will not need an hour to think about, to appreciate, what an onion is and how to engage in the elaborate celebration of slicing it, as Capon advises, but an onion does require some thought. Some onions are sweet; some onions are saltish. Some onions shout; others are quiet. Onions come in different sizes and in different colors and from different places. We must choose.

This first step, the recipe tells us, should take about 15 minutes. But it is only by thinly slicing the five cups of onions and then cooking them in the butter and oil that one knows just when the onions have been transformed, when their color, their consistency, and even their smell means that they are no longer raw, brash, insistent, but sweet, soft, subdued. And Child advises us to cook them in a covered pot, presumably asking us to trust her (no, ourselves) not to have cooked the onions too long over too high heat. Only by cooking the onions ourselves, only by doing, can we tell whether the flame is too high.

After the onions are transformed (and only we can tell), the recipe instructs us to raise the heat and to add salt and sugar. Why? A reader assumes, in theory, that the sugar will help to caramelize the onions, will help them to turn “an even, deep golden brown.” And now we see the significance of choosing our onions. Some will already be sweet with sugar and need no encouragement to turn color; others will need our help. And it is only by cooking that we can discern the slight but meaningful differences between yellow, golden, and golden brown. The color is important in its own right, but also it marks a distinct change in how the onions taste. Only by cooking the recipe does one see the physical reality of the transformation — only by doing do we see and smell and feel the effect the sugar has had on our handiwork. It is only by tasting the onions that we fully experience the transformation, not as observer but as accomplice. This requires an element of judgment that the recipe, when read but not cooked, obscures.

Several additional steps and nearly an hour later, the recipe instructs us to “add the wine and season to taste.” To whose taste? What should it taste of? To taste, too, is a performative verb — an injunction not to observe passively but to do. I had an instructor in culinary school who would admonish us constantly to taste the food. Seeing isn’t believing, he would say: tasting is believing.

The soup is not yet finished; it must simmer another 30 or 40 minutes. Does seasoning to taste ask us to judge how it tastes now, or how we imagine it should taste when the dish is finished? The recipe’s injunction to (season to) taste again implies an action, the active presence and involvement of someone cooking the soup. What it means — how it means — cannot be known by simply reading the recipe. It can be known only by being experienced. “The way to develop a poetic sense,” Ciardi argued, “is by using it.” The way to cook,14 also the title of another of Julia Child’s masterpieces, is by cooking.

Ciardi wrote that a poem is inseparable from its own performance of itself. Borrowing from Yeats, he writes that “The dance is in the dancer and the dancer is in the dance.” In the same way, the recipe is in the cook and the cook is in the recipe. If I may paraphrase, once one has learned to experience a recipe as a recipe, “there inevitably arrives a sense that one is also experiencing himself as a human being.” •

John E. Finn is a Professor of Government at Wesleyan University, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute, and holds degrees from Princeton University, Georgetown University Law Center, and Nasson College. Finn’s scholarship and writing in the field of food studies sits at the intersection of food, recipes, and politics. His published works include an entries and essays in The Oxford Companion to Sweets, Gastronomica, Wesleyan Magazine, and scholarly articles in Food, Culture & Society. Finn is the author of three books on constitutional law, most recently: Peopling the Constitution.


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