Saturday, May 23, 2015

Cookbook hell.

I've done all kinds of editing in my so-called career, but one type of edit job has stuck with me, quite literally---recipe text. Because of my work on recipe copy for magazines and books, I developed an interest in cooking that has almost certainly added to my waistline over the years. So be it!

I still do editing for cookbooks, and I still find it rewarding to get new ideas, tools, and techniques to add to my repertoire as I go. You can't survive on frozen pizza and White Castle every night. Well, you might be able to for a while, if you didn't get scurvy or something.

There are some peeves one develops over time in any profession, and editing may have more than most. Some are based on large issues---celebrity chefs have taken over the cookbook aisle, for one thing, elbowing out better chefs who can't get on Food Network. Also, I hate being lectured by health nuts, vegans, enemies of processed foods, or really anyone. I've watched the locavore movement get smaller and smaller until I think there will be people forced to survive on their own carpet lint. Basically, if I read the word "fresh" one more time---the word is scattered on recipe copy like holy water on sinners, and for the same reason---I may have to slug someone. But these are personal vexations.

(Q: Is a locovore someone who eats crazy people? Hmm.)

The peeves I want to share are problems that crop up constantly, but anyone who writes down a recipe, even just for Aunt Trudy in Fayetteville, should avoid them for the sake of the reader. Professionals should avoid them for the sake of the editor, too. Here are rules I strongly suggest bearing in mind:

1. List your ingredients in the order used. A list of the foods needed at the top of the recipe is extremely helpful, but it needs to be in some kind of order, and this is the best. Even if the recipe is "Hot Dog Supreme," and it's the greatest hot dog recipe ever, and hot dogs are all over it, and everything else is just a condiment, if the first thing you do is boil mustard, then the first ingredient on the list is mustard.

2. Preheat = heat. Heat your oven. It's impossible to preheat it. That would mean heating before heating. Heat your oven to 350 is no different than Preheat your oven to 350, except it's better English.

3. And while we're on that topic, don't make the first instruction "Heat the oven to 350" if you are then going to mix dough, knead it, let it rise, ferment wine, slaughter a cow, use it to make stock... Now the oven has been on for 79 days. It takes 15-20 minutes to heat a house oven to a desired temperature; take that into account.

4. Be consistent with your abbreviations. I'm not bothered if you use teaspoon or tsp or tsp. or 1 teaspoon (5 ml) or anything, but use it the same way throughout. If a book of recipes, use it the same way in every recipe.

5. Check your brand names. You can use them or not as you prefer; if there are no lawyers involved, it doesn't matter from the editorial point of view if you use Spam or canned spiced ham luncheon meat. But use whichever you choose throughout. And know what's a brand name and what isn't; Cool Whip, Marshmallow Fluff, Baggies, Rice Krispies, all trademarks; corn flakes, no. Thanks to, it's easy to find out what is an active trademark.

6. Keep the audience in mind. If you're dealing with a novice, telling them to fold in an egg into the batter could wind up in a Fred Flinstone-like explosion. Sometimes explanations are needed. That includes instructions that involve unusual cooking tools, like pastry crimpers, anti-griddles, mandolines, rasp graters... people often don't know what these things are.

And there's a lot of that krep out there.

Well, thanks for letting me vent. I feel much better. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to heat the oven to 350 and start boiling my mustard. The hot dogs and chocolate sauce have to be in the oven in 20 minutes.

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