While reading a cookbook review for Food52’s Piglet cookbook tournament, I noticed that Bonnie S. Benwick, recipe editor for the Washington Post, mentioned the absence of recipespeak in one of the cookbooks.
“Recipespeak!” I exclaimed to myself. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I had to find out.
Bonnie S. Benwick, incidentally, has one of the world’s greatest jobs for a food writer. She is the deputy food editor and recipe editor for the Washington Post, and began working in that department in 2004. She also writes the weekly Dinner in Minutes column, reviews cookbooks, and manages recipes and photo shoots.
Here’s what Bonnie says about what defines recipespeak, why she hates it, and how to write better recipes:
Q. What is recipespeak, please?
A. Sure. It’s like Tarzan speak: “Preheat oven to.” “Line sheet pan with paper.” Whose time are you saving with that? Readers are so busy that we have to knock out articles?
Recipespeak refers to something I interviewed Judith Jones about long ago — and it has always been a bugaboo of mine. She challenged the notion that directions had to be written without articles, and with all kinds of awkward phrasing that has pretty much become standard in the cookbook world.
I understand why those “In a mixing bowl,” sentences start the way they do, but honestly, does anyone prep for a recipe that way, incrementally, as they read?
Q. Just for the record, by knocking out “articles,” you mean what?
A. I mean getting rid of “a” and “the” in sentences.
Q. Aren’t people just trying to write shorter recipes?
A. If you want to save space, instead of “using a mortar and pestle,” write “Use a mortar and pestle.”
Some of recipespeak is done for brevity’s sake, but the loveliness of language is often sacrificed.
Q. Do you have an example of “loveliness of language?”
A. Dorie Greenspan talks to her readers. They often say they feel like she is there. It’s because she takes the time to write in complete, descriptive sentences. Are we really too time-starved to read that way anymore?
And why wouldn’t we want our recipes to be as thoroughly understood as possible?
Q. So what’s the right way to write sentences in recipes?
A. Write sentences with the directive verb at the beginning, such as “Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat.” As opposed to “In a medium saucepan, add butter and melt over low heat.” Which one is easier to read?
People think if you use fewer words it’s more helpful to people, which goes against everything I think about what recipes need. Why would you use a writing style that people aren’t used to? Why make it even harder for people to read your recipe? There’s no reason to stray from what’s working.
Q. Any last words for recipe writers?
A. Think about having a conversation with readers all the way through the recipe. I’m not suggesting they make it twice as long or interject a story about their great-aunt.
Read Sarah Moulton. She writes clear recipes. She explains processes and techniques. And she uses articles.
Of all the helpful tips about writing recipes, leaving out articles is not one of them. There’s no reason to throw English out the window.
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More on this blog from Bonnie: