Writing Recipe Headnotes for the Heart
Words can stick like dried honey to a countertop, catching any stray bit of paper towel. They can swirl and fuse into a person like stirring a spoonful of honey from a jar into a hot mug of tea. Sometimes we can be so carefree with our words, forgetting this quality they possess that rivals the handiwork of honeybees. Sometimes, we linger on words spoken a long time ago, letting them marinate within us that our response might tenderize until the right time.
One evening this past winter, a chill pierced the air that could penetrate even the thickest Ugg boots or puffy jacket. I had set out cross-town in San Francisco to attend a poetry reading and arrived early knowing the race might be on for the metered parking spots, free after 7 p.m. It had been months, since I had attended a reading. It didn’t help that I was a walking ball of influenza, all half-used tissues and sniffles, wrapped in layers of black outerwear. I kept to myself until I couldn’t keep myself from seeking out people to talk to, visually apologetic for my sorry state but not so disapproving of my health that I would let it keep me from indulging in listening to some favorite poets inflect their poems with their voices. To read a poem aloud is to give it new breath and life, to discover another side of it like unexpectedly catching someone you love doing something kind for a stranger. We crave igniting our aural capabilities. In that way reading a poem on the page and hearing the author pause in different spots than the line breaks on a page which stop the eye is akin to releasing the poem anew.
What pulled me out of bed and into the bookstore reading that night were the poets lined up to read from recent collections and getting to see Chard de Niord, who with Jacqueline Gens, had co-created the MFA Poetry program at New England College, of which I am an alumnus. The evening’s reading began. Peter Everwine read softly, his vowels long and his consonants clustering around each other. I craned forward then, determined not to miss one word and surprised as my eyes glistened as if on command when he finished reading a poem that caught me in its net and held me in the quiet space just after a poem finishes and before people begin clapping. The imagery kept me cornered in his mother’s kitchen, my eyes fixed on her rag rug that served as a striking symbol of grief. Chard de Niord stepped forward and read with tenderness, leaning ever so slightly on the podium, caught in the current of words he had penned but had taken on their own life. Alejandro Murguía spoke of finding love in Paris, even as the listener knew early on that this love would not last, even as the listener ate the clues of foreshadowing that would take the beloved back to Caracas. Forrest Gander told a story describing the human need for connection with such fluency it left me breathless.
When the reading ended, I sat there, still soaking in the words and truths relayed in the small span of an hour, feeling changed. With glassy eyes and still sniffling my way through a purse-sized pack of tissues, I introduced myself to another poet in this room made up mainly of poets. As we navigated our introductions, I described the food poetry that’s kept my attention the reading regimen of cookbooks and poetry books. He scoffed, not meanly, but said, “What good writing can there be in cookbooks?”
It’s been many months since that poetry reading and the scoffing poet’s words continue to bubble up within me like a tomato sauce that simmers for several hours, letting the ingredients concentrate. What I think the scoffing poet was missing that night, is that cookbooks possess their own possibility for weaving a good narrative or lyrical play of language if done well. What I think the scoffing poet was pointing to that evening is an innate need to push the Word forth. As someone who jots recipes down on scraps of paper pocked with sauce in my kitchen and occasionally shares them in this spot of the internet, I, too am perplexed by the formulaic qualities of recipe-writing, but then, just as quickly, I can be dazzled by a writer who displays a sense of voice with clarity of instruction and the right choice of evocative detail. I think that might just be as hard as writing a really good humorous poem. The key is to not muddle the method with so much self that it is cloying, but instead, to also not be afraid to step out of the norms of recipe diction (within the parameters of a publishing house style guide).
The scoffing poet’s words pushed me forward to consider what good writing looks like in a recipe, while adhering to a recipe’s particular requirements. I can certainly attest to the necessity of tightening language even after it seems like a belt that’s been cinched one rung too snug before Thanksgiving supper. In my own experience, crafting a cookbook reminds me so much of sitting among sheaves of poems strewn on the ground, determining how they thread together into a chapbook and in which order. Writing a recipe requires the concision of language that poetry already understands. The heart of the writer and their personality often come out in head notes.
If I could continue the conversation with the scoffing poet, I would underscore the opportunity in head notes. They can give explanation for any oddities that might throw off a home cook in the instructions. They also sometimes tell a story that threads the recipe into the larger narrative of life. Poetry and poetic devices with their keen eye of economy can disturb the status quo of the ho hum head note. Is it be possible for a cookbook to win a Pulitzer Prize or a National Book Award? It is a question I brought up to a friend that elicited a guffaw for my bravado. I look forward to clapping aloud for the food writer who clinches that golden apple, if it is one that can be extended to members of the cooking community. That it hasn’t been done yet is impetus for cookbook writers to set writing goals as high as recipe testing limits. There is much yet to excavate.