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edemuth

Recipe Writers and Their "Voice"

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From Russ Parsons' review of Dorie Greenspan's Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé in today's Philadelphia Inquirer:

"Greenspan is one of the few recipe writers who actually convey a voice. Read her instructions, and you sense a real person there, someone who has prepared this recipe before and who is there to help you."

Arthur Schwartz comes immediately to mind as a recipe writer with a similar "voice." When I make one of his recipes, I feel as if he's right there in the kitchen with me. I was lucky to find his cookbooks when I first began to cook, and I still return to them time and again. Partly because there are some simple, classic favorites of mine in the books, but also because reading the recipes is like a visit with an old friend.

Which recipe writers have a "voice" you like, and what do you like about it?

I'm making a distinction here between writers who can skillfully enumerate recipes for the novice and those who bring some other engaging or interesting quality to their writing. Nominations for either category, or both, are welcome.

Note: This thread springboarded from here. (Thanks, Jinmyo!)


Erin

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Elizabeth David, because she assumes you know what you're doing and just want a few hints. And while she's giving you those hints, she's filling you in on how the dish came to be in the first place, what the local culture is where it came from, and on and on with fascinating information.

Marcella Hazan, because she wants you to do it EXACTLY RIGHT.

And of course Shirley Corriher, who wants you to understand just what's going on in that pan.

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Elizabeth David, exactly. French Provincial Cooking was one of the first cookbooks I owned when I was learning to cook. I made my first flourless chocolate cake from it -- a list of 5 ingredients (she said bitter chocolate--I hoped she meant bittersweet, and I was hazy on caster sugar) and 5 sentences of instructions. Although I didn't know what I was doing, and baked it in an oven with absolutely no thermostat (I had to lie on the floor and open the broiler to see how high the flame was and then guess what the temperature might be) and a door that had to be jammed shut with a chair, it came out perfectly. For all I knew the recipe could have been the Rosetta Stone and yet I trusted her completely.

I feel the same way about Edna Lewis, especially Taste of Country Cooking, and I think the similarity is each has such a distinctive voice and creates such a sense of where the food comes from that I know how the dish will taste just from reading the recipe.

Whether it tasted like David's or Lewis' rendition wasn't the point. It tasted just like the food I cook tastes. To me, that's the true alchemy of cooking. And I think, especially for David, her assumption that you do know what you're doing gives you the freedom to find your own taste/voice.

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I agree that both Elizabeth David's and Shirley Corrihor's recipes can be identified by writing style, and I'll add, (I can't believe I'm the first to mention her), MLK Fisher's.

I'm tempted to propose Julia Child, put perhaps seeing chefs on TV infuses personality into their writing that would otherwise not show up.

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: big head smack: Of course; how could I have forgotten Mary Frances? :unsure:

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I find Nigella's style quite interesting. I used to find it annoying but now I quite like it.

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I'm bumping this up thanks to a comment by Michael Ruhlman in response to my question about what he likes about writing cookbooks (emphasis mine):

issues of basic technique regarding how food behaves, things that distinguish common preparations, the differences in recipes for the same thing, custard say, or using egg whites to leaven something rather than a chemical leavener; i love personality in the recipes and writing.  i like baking recipes because I because I have no natural feel for baking, and i like recipes for things that people buy instead of make anymore, bacon and corned beef, chocolate pudding and cake.

I can certainly think of a lot of food writers who have personality in their non-recipe writing, but talking about voice -- that elusive aspect of rhetoric -- in the recipes themselves is fascinating. I was reading a recipe by our own Paula Wolfert the other day and feeling a very strong sense that she cared very much that I appreciated the meaning of each step. Ditto, to very different effect, Anthony Bourdain's voice in The Les Halles Cookbook; the guy's commitment to the food (perhaps at your expense, lamebrain) really shines through.

Any other examples?

edited to add: Based on your non-cookbooks and posts here (I can never tell whose voice wafts through those French Laundry recipes, and I don't have Bouchon or the Ripert book) I am really, really, really looking forward to the your charcuterie book, Michael.


Edited by chrisamirault (log)

Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Alice May Brock.

Anyone remember this one?


kit

"I'm bringing pastry back"

Weebl

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I really gotta agree about Anthony Bourdains cookbook, I got it and spend the rest of the evening reading the Introduction and a lot of the little blurbs.

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i'm looking forward to the charcuterie book too! those recipes do convey my personal experience with the food, especially the basic ones or master recipes.

judith jones wrote a great story about good recipe writing in the nytimes several months ago. the times's site probably charges for it now, but if you're writing a cookbook, this grande dame has some very smart words on the subject.

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edited to add: Based on your non-cookbooks and posts here (I can never tell whose voice wafts through those French Laundry recipes, and I don't have Bouchon or the Ripert book)

Susie Heller tests and writes all recipes for Thomas Keller. I'm responsible for all text that's not in the recipe. and i have to say susie does a heroic job, with this stuff. she is really good.


Edited by Michael Ruhlman (log)

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One of my first dessert cookbooks was the New Book of Great Desserts by Maida Heatter; her voice/style is perfect for a novice, and for the experienced cook, it's chatty and comfortable. Don't I wish she were still writing cookbooks - maybe there's hope.

Although not a cookbook in any way shape or form, I really miss Laurie Colwin's essays in Gourmet from years ago. I have the books they were compiled into and find myself wanting for more.

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In 1970 or so, I came across a set of three "Blueberry Hill" cookbooks written by a lady named Elsie Masterton. She quit her job as a secretary in New York and moved with her husband and small daughters to a ski inn in Vermont. She didn't know how to cook, the only food source was a small town grocery, and their first season there was no snow. She probably wrote the cookbooks--along with several other autobiographical books I've also read--to keep their heads above water. Unfortunately, Elsie died young of cancer, but one daughter carries on the family tradition as owner of a takeout shop/caterer in Asheville NC.

Elsie was the most creative cook I've ever seen, serving a seemingly endless variety with limited food availability. Her breezy personal writing style became my ideal. Some cooks/writers who were similar in style (if only sometimes) were the late, great Bert Green, Cecily Brownstone, Helen Corbitt and Poppy Cannon.

I admire Ann Hodgman's "Beat This!" and "Beat That!" for her sassy attitude, Jane and Michael Stern for writing about food most likely to be snubbed by the NYTimes, and Sarah Leah Chase's cookbooks (she was the third writer on "The Silver Palate Cookbook").

Most chef and restaurant cookbooks are a total bore, although I own a few of them, always hoping for something better. I hate cookbooks where the author never mentions herself. Unless I get to know you and your preferences, how can I tell if I'd like your recipes? For example, if you tout egg white omelets, use lots of hot peppers in your foods or are a fish lover, I probably won't care much for your recipes and won't care what you have to say, no matter how clever you are.

Absolutely necessary is humor, humor, humor.


Ruth Dondanville aka "ruthcooks"

“Are you making a statement, or are you making dinner?” Mario Batali

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Mark Bittman, because he's so practical and translates chefs so well.

MFK Fisher, because she's just amazing. Everything she wrote was a recipe - if not for food, then for life.

Cheezy enough? :rolleyes::blush:


Edited by Megan Blocker (log)

"We had dry martinis; great wing-shaped glasses of perfumed fire, tangy as the early morning air." - Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado

Queenie Takes Manhattan

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Julie Powell. Very engaging.


I'm a canning clean freak because there's no sorry large enough to cover the, "Oops! I gave you botulism" regrets.

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Alice May Brock.

Anyone remember this one?

Of Alice's Restaurant? What characterized her voice in recipes, Kit?

I mentioned Alice in fun, as I just found a copy of her 1969 cookbook and have been laughing hysterically since opening it. What a character. So very '60s. Under "Faking It" she states: "Just because you have four chairs, six plates and three cups is no reason why you can't invite twelve people to dinner..." and she goes on to suggest using hubcaps for plates and coffee cans for drinking cups.

There isn't much I'd cook from this book (as I said above, it is so very '60s and so very basic) but Alice is adamant about encouraging experimentation with substitutions and changes and doin' your own thang, just as any good hippie would. She comments that sweet potato pie is "out of sight"!

Bitchen!


kit

"I'm bringing pastry back"

Weebl

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"Muffins have been inordinately popular for years. I, for one, have never been able to understand why. They must be eaten piping hot and are not very good when warmed over. An exception might be made for bran muffins, but then we could get along just as well without them, too." --James Beard, James Beard's American Cookery

Now for someone to write that and THEN go on to offer recipes for muffins...

More later, but for now, let me say that his voice was one of the first that I read and first that made me smile.


"Viciousness in the kitchen.

The potatoes hiss." --Sylvia Plath

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In addition to some of the others already mentioned, Marcella Hazan.

I also find the original authors of Joy of Cooking very amusing. Nigella is fun too although sometimes I think she tries a little too hard to be enthusiastic.

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I can feel Lynne Rossetto Kasper's sense of place/ ingredients and history in "the Splendid Table"

I can feel Nigella's blithe personality and practicality in all her books

I like the chatty precision of a Shirley Corriher book

Lettie Teague's wine writing in Gourmet gives me a feeling that I might actually enjoy a glass with her at the table - can't say that for a lot of wine writers.

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I felt like I had met Barbara Tropp after reading her books, "The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking" and "China Moon".

Her writing style is clear and upbeat in the books, and it conveys a strong passion and love for her subject in addition to extensive scholarship and experience. There are many personal anecdotes accompanyhing the recipes and also many of her own cooking 'trucs'. In "China Moon", she also speaks often of the other people who worked with her at her restaurant in San Francisco and shares stories of starting and running the restaurant. I was happy to get a chance to eat at China Moon twice before it closed in the mid-nineties.


"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1962 "Big Mama's Funeral"

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As far as I know, her recipes are only available in blog form rather than in print, but I really like the voice of fellow Seattleite Molly at orangette. Both the cooking and the writing share center stage. I don't actually know her, but I feel like I do. Her narrative approach to food and cooking really works for me.

(And Molly, if you're reading this, you ought to assemble some of your greatest hits for a print volume! I think it would be really successful.)

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I like Lora Brody's "Growing Up on the Chocolate Diet." Even if there weren't great recipes, it would be worth reading for the stories.


"Los Angeles is the only city in the world where there are two separate lines at holy communion. One line is for the regular body of Christ. One line is for the fat-free body of Christ. Our Lady of Malibu Beach serves a great free-range body of Christ over angel-hair pasta."

-Lea de Laria

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I have to agree that in Les Halles cookbook, you hear Tony challenging, taunting and teasing you from the pages. It is extraordinary how clearly he puts his voice into words.

I recently aquired Flavor by Rocco 'DiSpirito. He does a pretty good job of infusing his personality as well. (Naturally it is a very different one from AB) Actually, the funny thing is that I read it and he seems like a much warmer, down to earth person than the persona he portrays. It made me wonder how much of his "personality" is staged. I think he may do better if he cut it back a bit and was more of himself as he seems in his writing. Very passionate and has really observed, practiced and studied food, flavor combinations and what makes combinations work.

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