How to Write a Cookbook

Sooner or later, you’re bound to do something different and wonderful, and you owe it to yourself to write it down and pass it on.

Do this even though once you’ve got a dish the way you want, you’re likely to find that no one will be able to replicate it to your or even their satisfaction. The secret might very well prove to be your cooking container (especially if it’s seasoned; woks are said to have their own signature) or something as ineffable as your own special touch, which might prove to be nothing more than a particular cooking method you consider unimportant enough not to write down. But at least give other people a base opportunity by listing your ingredients and procedures.

By all means, include information aside from just the basics. For instance, mention if the dish was a favorite of a family member, or if you serve it every year on a particular holiday and garnish the dish with what other components were elemental, especially those involving heirlooms (your Uncle Earl’s china platter, or the centerpiece Millie made out of sewing scraps and pine cones), activities like having a breakfast on the morning presents were opened or memorable incidents (“Earl pulled a gun on Millie when she dropped the platter.”)

Such documentation not only enriches the book itself, but it also provides fodder for short stories, novels or off-Broadway plays.

Let me also encourage you to write recipes by hand. While this exercise might serve as an irritating reminder of how bad your handwriting actually is, it gives the recipe verisimilitude. Handwritten pages also aspire to art when splattered with slopped liquids; it’s so Pollock. You just don’t get that with a laptop. Writing recipes by hand does require some precision, but don’t let getting caught up in the heat of the moment stop you. Later you can find another pen, more red wine or chocolate syrup, and amend the entry.

As to what recipes to include, for once in your life, don’t worry about diversity. Put your best foot forward. If your forte is cakes, casseroles, or seafood, concentrate on those and don’t make any spurious attempt to fill in with recipes you simply copy from another place unless you actually try them out first. Bear in mind that this book should be as personal as you can make it, as reflective as possible of your personality and idiosyncrasies.

By all means, include recipes from friends and relatives as well, since those enrich your work by leaps and bounds, but always identify your contributor and provide details of them as well as a genealogy of the recipe itself. For instance, an entry in my book reveals that a recipe for chicken soup with corn and rivels came from a lady from Lancaster, Pa. who was 6’2”, a psychologist with a unibrow who got the recipe from her Quaker grandmother, the wife of a Lithuanian stockbroker.

Such seemingly irrelevant details make for richer reading than a dry recitation of ingredients and have the potential to approach the limits of art itself.

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