The Evolution of Recipe Writing Style

Chapter heading from Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton
Chapter heading from The Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton

Last time, I wrote about an important 19th century cookbook, The Cook’s Oracle, by William Kitchiner and noted that his book was published during an era of significant cookbook evolution1.  One of the most important was how recipes were written: the structure and style of recipes.

How Recipe Writing Style Changed

Narrative Style

For a long time, recipes were written in a narrative style, with the ingredients and method intermixed.  The recipe for “An Excellent Catsup which will keep for more than twenty years” from The Universal Receipt Book by Priscilla Homespun (1818) is a good example — it’s written almost as a dictation to an assistant or trainee.  Or, perhaps, it could be a transcription of a recipe demonstration on a TV cooking show, which rarely start by listing all of the ingredients, but instead jump right in to the cooking. (Notice that this catsup recipe does not contain any tomatoes. This was not uncommon, as catsup, ketchup and catchup were made with many non-tomato ingredients.)
Catsup recipe from The Universal Receipt Book by Priscilla Homespun
Catsup from The Universal Receipt Book by Priscilla Homespun (1818)

A narrative recipe has two just parts:  title and method & ingredients.  Sometimes — like in this recipe — the author might add some comments about how to use it, which will be in the main block of text.

Diagram of old-style recipe structure
Old-style narrative recipe structure

It’s not completely clear why recipes were written this way in the earliest cookbooks.  One reason was that they were written for experienced cooks — or perhaps a battery of servants in a well to do household — who had significant cooking experience.

I suspect that another reason for the condensed style was to reduce printing costs. It is far easier to typeset a narrative style recipe than the recipes we see today, and this format uses less paper (less white space on the page = lower costs).

This makes me wonder:  have any historians uncovered correspondence between a cookbook author and her publisher arguing about the potential costs of a new recipe style?  For example:

AUTHOR:  Dear publisher, I have a great idea for a new recipe style. I’ll put the ingredients first, one on each line, so it’s easier to follow…

PUBLISHER:  Dear author, an intriguing idea, but it sounds expensive — far beyond our present printing budget. If you would like to reduce your advance or royalty to pay for it, I can consult with the typesetting office forthwith for their estimate.

AUTHOR:  Oh, never mind.  I’ll use the classic, compact style.

Eliza Acton’s Innovation:  Listing the Ingredients in a Separate Block

In the mid-19th century, more cookbooks were published and they started to filter into more households, so authors started changing how they wrote their books and recipes.

In the Lieffers article, Eliza Acton is credited as being one of the key innovators through her 1845 Modern Cookery in All Its Branches, which put the ingredients and cooking time on separate lines because “This shows at a glance what articles have to be prepared before hand, and the hour at which they must be ready; while it affords great facility as well, for an estimate of the expense attending them.”2.  It was a great idea, but for some reason she put them after the method, the reverse of today’s convention, as the annotated recipe below shows.

Double mushroom catsup recipe from Modern Cookery by Eliza Acton (1845) - annotated
Double mushroom catsup recipe from Modern Cookery by Eliza Acton (1845) – annotated with red bars

The Acton style has three blocks: title, method, and ingredients.

Eliza Acton recipe structure
Recipe structure in Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery (1845)

(Two fun facts about the edition of Acton’s book that I consulted:  1) it was “revised and prepared for the American Housekeeper” by Sarah J. Hale, the writer and editor who tirelessly campaigned for a national Thanksgiving holiday. 2) an edition at Harvard/Radcliffe was restored in honor of Julia Child with funds provided by Anne A. Cushman.)

The Modern Recipe

Eventually, cookbook writers realized that putting the ingredients first made the most sense, so recipe style started to slowly shift.  Lieffers gives credit to Isabella Beeton in the mid-1850s, the author of The Book of Household Management, as the first to organizing her recipes in this more logical structure.   In the first section of recipes (soups), Beeton explains her recipe design:

It will be seen, by reference to the following Recipes, that an entirely original and most intelligible system has been pursued in explaining the preparation of each dish. We would recommend the young housekeeper, cook, or whoever may be engaged in the important task of “getting ready” the dinner, or other meal, to follow precisely the order in which the recipes are given. Thus, let them first place on their table all the INGREDIENTS necessary; then the modus operandi, or MODE of preparation, will be easily managed. By a careful reading, too, of the recipes, there will not be the slightest difficulty in arranging a repast for any number of persons, and an accurate notion will be gained of the TIME the cooking of each dish will occupy, of the periods at which it is SEASONABLE, and also of its AVERAGE COST. [italics and capitals in original]

Here is her recipe for oyster ketchup in the 1866 edition that shows the title + ingredients + method form that we see today 3:

Oyster ketchup recipe from The Book of Household Management, by Isabella Beeton
Oyster ketchup recipe from The Book of Household Management, by Isabella Beeton (1866)

Beeton’s recipes are close to today’s structure. The major change between then and now is the “story & tips” that are shown before or close to the recipe — for example, a personal story, like how the author was inspired by a pasta dish tasted after a long winding hike up a mountain in Sicily to meet a distant relative of a former prince.

Diagram of modern recipe structure showing title, story, ingredients and method
Modern recipe structure

For lots of reasons, today’s recipes are accompanied by many more photographs4. In the Gastropod episode on cookbooks one of the guests notes that the early 1980s were a turning point for photos in cookbooks because of improvements in printing technology.  These days, there are many cookbook buyers that would not consider buying a book that isn’t filled with photographs.5

In the decades since publication of Beeton’s book, there have been plenty of people tinkering with recipe structure — the Gastropod episode on cookbooks spends some time on this.  Notable examples include the Dirt Candy Cookbook by Amanda Cohen and Ryan Dunlavey, with Grady Hendrix, a combination of graphic novel and cookbook;  Japanese manga about cooking that have recipes spliced into the story; and Cooking For Engineers’ grid-like recipe structure to more clearly show how a recipe’s ingredients and method are related.  Perhaps further recipe innovations have been predicted in a science fiction novels or the Black Mirror series and we will see them in coming decades.

 

Young ladies in a kitchen being instructed in the art of cooking. Coloured etching by John Leech. Wellcome Collection. crdmuxr6
Young ladies being instructed in the art of cooking. Etching by John Leech.  From the Wellcome Collection.

References

Image Credits

Notes

  1. The article by Caroline Lieffers listed in the references explores these changes in great detail and looks at the deeper meanings, e.g., “A system of sensory evaluation privileging the cook’s judgment was to give way to the broader ‘social technology’ of abstract measurement and quantification” (p. 940), and “Indeed, cookery, like a poorly performed chemical experiment, is notoriously contingent, but detailed instructions allowed the author to defer blame.” (p. 942).
  2. From the preface to the English edition, pages xxi-xxii, via Lieffers, p. 940-941
  3. 1 fluid drachm is 1 teaspoon (1/8 of a fluid ounce, about 5 mL).  Drachms are also called drams, and are one of those annoying units that are used in mass and volume contexts, like ounces. In these old books, most uses of drachms are probably volume.
  4. It’s worth noting that Beeton’s book has plenty of illustrations (etchings or engravings), like the one at the top of the post, but I didn’t see any cases of a recipe having a dedicated illustration.
  5. In his enlightening piece on cookbook history at the Atlantic, Henry Notaker concludes with this:  “These days, simple recipes that were centuries ago lower-class fare have been brought back; one German cookbook published in 2006 was called Arme-Leute-Essen—Heute Delikatessen (Poor People’s Food—Today’s Delicacies). One might interpret this development as the final chapter of the breakdown of social stratification in cuisine. Instead, though, adopting a simpler, more rustic lifestyle is often a choice available only to those with the time and money to curate their consumption in the first place. Gorgeously photographed cookbooks showcasing peasant food would likely surprise people hundreds of years ago who had nothing else to eat.”

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