Digesting Recipes: The Art of Culinary Notation

Digesting Recipes: The Art of Culinary Notation

by Susannah Worth


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Digesting Recipes: The Art of Culinary Notation scrutinises the form of the recipe, using it as a means to explore a multitude of subjects in post-war Western art and culture, including industrial mass-production, consumerism, hidden labour, and art engaged with the everyday. Each chapter is presented as a dish in a nine-course meal, drawing on examples from published cookbooks and the work of artists such as Alison Knowles, Yoko Ono, Annette Messager, Martha Rosler, Barbara T. Smith, Bobby Baker and Mika Rottenberg. A recipe is an instruction, the imperative tone of the expert, but this constraint can offer its own kind of potential. A recipe need not be a domestic trap but might instead offer escape – something to fantasise about or aspire to. It can hold a promise of transformation both actual and metaphorical. It can be a proposal for action, or envision a possible future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781782798606
Publisher: Hunt, John Publishing
Publication date: 06/26/2015
Pages: 114
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Susannah Worth is a writer and editor, and has worked in arts publishing since 2006.

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Digesting Recipes

The Art of Culinary Notation

By Susannah Worth

John Hunt Publishing Ltd.

Copyright © 2014 Susannah Worth
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78279-860-6


Hors d'oeuvre The Recipe as Escape

The shared lives of Alice Babette Toklas and Gertrude Stein were suffused with food. It was a concern of such priority that in 1934 they considered reneging on a plan to spend time in the USA due to Stein's apprehensions regarding the cuisine in the country of her birth: 'tinned vegetable cocktails and tinned fruit salads, for example. Surely, said I, you weren't required to eat them,' Toklas recalled. In 1910, when she went to live with Stein at 27 Rue de Fleurus, Paris, Toklas embraced new culinary complexities, preparing dinners à deux and frequently playing the good wife and hostess at parties. In turn, Stein nourished her imagination and encouraged her gastronomical experimentation. 'Cookbooks have always intrigued and seduced me,' Toklas once wrote. 'When I was still a dilettante in the kitchen they held my attention, even the dull ones, from cover to cover, the way crime and murder stories did Gertrude Stein.' And perhaps while Stein was concocting 'Salad Dressing and an Artichoke', Toklas was busy rustling up a couple of Hearts of Artichokes à la Isman Bavaldy, a recipe from her own cookbook.


Please pale hot, please cover rose, please acre in the red stranger, please butter all the beef-steak with regular feel faces.


It was please it was please carriage cup in an ice-cream, in an icecream it was too bended bended with scissors and all this time. A whole is inside a part, part does go away, a hole is red leaf. No choice was where there was and a second and a second.

Stein's language gambols and gyres in loops and repeats, rejecting all traditions and expectations of linear narrative. It is gnomic and difficult, seeming to require specialist knowledge to unlock its secrets. Its experiment fits the modern model of exclusivity and 'high' art, and whether intentionally or not, it repelled many and alienated most; so to suggest comparison with something as banal as a recipe might seem hard to stomach. In fact, Stein's vocabulary is always ordinary and unemotional, and it is through context, attention and repetition that she renders it strange.

Both Stein and Toklas deal with the objects and words that construct our daily lives. Tender Buttons, from which the lines above are excerpted, is divided into three sections — Objects, Food, Rooms — each addressing the same domestic, everyday ingredients as Toklas's cookbook, and in the hands of both they are made extraordinary. Stein's work is full of humour and play, and her use of the present progressive tense gives a sense of being in the moment. This narrated action differs from the imperative voice of a recipe or Toklas's reminiscences that often surround the instructions, but it holds the same sense of presence and activity. Just as 'Hearts of Artichokes à la Isman Bavaldy' invites action, so 'Salad Dressing And An Artichoke' begs the active engagement of its reader.

This is the menu at a lunch party to which we were invited at a house whose mistress was a well-known French hostess and whose food was famous.

Aspic de Foie Gras
Salmon Sauce Hollandaise
Hare à la Royale
Hearts of Artichokes à la Isman Bavaldy
Pheasants Roasted with Truffles
Lobster à la Française
Singapore Ice Cream
Berries and Fruit

This copious lunch was accompanied by appropriate and rare wines. There were at the table ten guests and six of the family. The fine linen and beautiful crystal, porcelains and silver were of the same quality as the menu.

Hearts of Artichokes à la Isman Bavaldy

Prepare 12 artichokes by cutting the leaves to within 2 inches of the heart. As each one is cut, put it into a recipient of cold water to which the juice of 1 lemon has been added. When all the artichokes are ready, shake them well to clean them in a quantity of running water. Put them at once in a large saucepan of furiously boiling water to which 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon cardamom seeds and the juice of 2 lemons have been added, and cover. There should be enough water to float the artichokes until they are tender, about 25 minutes according to size. As soon as a leaf can be removed easily, remove from flame, drain at once, and put into recipient of cold water and under running water. When water is tepid remove artichokes, drain, gently remove all leaves and the chokes. Trim around the hearts if necessary. The leaves can be scraped with a silver spoon and mixed with a little cream to be used in an omelette or under mirrored eggs. Boil 3 lbs. of small green asparagus tied in bundles in a covered saucepan of salted water. Cover and boil for about 15 minutes or until tender, but be careful not to overcook.

After soaking a sweetbread weighing about 1 lb. in cold water for 1 hour, boil in water to which 1/2 teaspoon salt, 2 shallots and 6 coriander seeds have been added. Boil covered for 20 minutes. Plunge into cold water and when cool enough, remove tubes and skin. Strain with potato masher through strainer. Put 2 tablespoons butter in frying pan, when the butter begins to bubble reduce flame. Put the sweetbreads in frying pan. Stir constantly until they are well mixed with butter. Sprinkle on them 2 tablespoons flour. Mix thoroughly. Then slowly add 2 cups dry champagne. Cook gently until this sauce becomes stiff.

Cut the asparagus within 2 inches of the tip. With the left hand hold an asparagus upright in the heart of an artichoke while a wall of the sauce is built around it with the right hand. The tips of the asparagus should show about 1/2 inch above the sauce. Cover the sauce with a thick coat of browned breadcrumbs. Pour 1 tablespoon butter over each asparagus tip and the breadcrumbs. Place the artichokes in a well-buttered fireproof dish and brown in preheated 425° oven for 1/4 hour.

It does not take as long as it sounds to prepare this dish. The lemon, champagne and coriander seeds give an ineffable flavour.

Though Alice B Toklas had always wanted to write a cookbook, it wasn't complete until 1954, almost ten years after the Second World War had ended, and eight years after the death of Gertrude Stein. It was the cookbook of their life together. In the introduction, Toklas wrote: 'As cook to cook I must confide that this book with its mingling of recipe and reminiscence was put together during the first three months of an attack of pernicious jaundice. Partly, I suppose, it was written as an escape from the narrow diet and monotony of illness, and I daresay nostalgia for old days and old ways.'

Toklas relished cookbooks not simply for their helpful instructions, but for the narratives in which recipes are often embedded, as her own certainly were, and for a kind of novelistic escapism. Just as 'hors d'oeuvre' translates literally as 'outside the (main) work,' so recipe writing in the post-war years offered a glimpse of the foreign and the fantastical, while also elevating cooking beyond pure labour, to a realm of pleasure and pastime.

Post-war Britain endured far harsher food rationing than during the war years themselves. While in the USA food supplies had bounced back within a year, austerity continued in Britain until 1954, with restrictions even on basics like flour, bread and potatoes. Food was as grey and dusty as the rubble-strewn landscape, and without the motivation of patriotism or the inhibiting fear of war, women gathered together under the aegis of the Housewives' League to campaign against rationing and demand their daily loaf.

The war had given women a taste of work and inspired many to leave jobs in service to wealthy families, which in turn left wealthier women without cooks. More women than ever were cooking and, for many, the idea of setting up home and a sweet domestic life was a fantasy in itself: an escape from war-time hardships or long years spent working as servants. The advertising machine revved its engine, convincing housewives that a new fitted kitchen was the only way to achieve a happy, healthy home. Once in place, of course, the kitchen could be filled with myriad 'labour-saving' appliances. It was the rhetoric of efficiency, laced with the language of freedom. In reality it served only the consumerist economy. Though some women incorporated part-time work into their housewifely idyll, for many others life would soon tumble towards suburban seclusion, disconnectedness and depression, so that by the 1960s there was restlessness stirring in the kitchen.

Escape was sought in the domestic dream, but the recipes that guided these bright-eyed brides seemed to have the capacity to transport them even further into fantasy. Alice B Toklas compared her favourite recipes to the most compelling crime fiction, and Elizabeth David, who quoted copiously from literary works in her early books, acknowledged this imaginative appeal in the second edition of her Mediterranean Food:

This book first appeared in 1950, when almost every essential ingredient of good cooking was either rationed or unobtainable. To produce the simplest meal consisting of even two or three genuine dishes required the utmost ingenuity and devotion. But even if people could not very often make the dishes here described, it was stimulating to think about them; to escape from the deadly boredom of queuing and the frustration of buying the weekly rations; to read about real food cooked with wine and olive oil, eggs, butter and cream, and dishes richly flavoured with onions, garlic, herbs, and brightly coloured Southern vegetables.

Elizabeth David is often credited as single-handedly bringing such delicacies to the attention of the Brits, but in fact she was following in the footsteps of writers who had published in the inter-war years, such as Marcel Boulestin whose Simple French Cooking (1923) popularised French cuisine in English speaking countries, and Countess Morphy's Recipes of All Nations (1935) which very nearly lived up to its name. David's descriptions painted colourful pictures, evoking the sun-drenched lands where she had passed the war years, from Marseille to Sicily, Crete and Alexandria. She wrote with sensuality but also with the refined reserve of her class. She was good-looking, wealthy, intelligent; one of the new breed for whom cooking was a choice, an elegant, glamorous hobby. In the post-war years of shifting identities and new middle classes, Elizabeth David was the first of many personalities who offered an image of the good life, away from the daily grind; a lifestyle to aspire to and a top-down model of good taste.

The war had brought international flavours to Europe and the USA, and though the latter had inspired a more casual culture in Britain, the great shifts that occurred within British society had led to much elbowing and social climbing. The new middle classes were learning to show off, and those who had known grander days asserted their position with strengthened snobbishness. Entertaining was a crucial tool in finding and proclaiming social standing and it lead to the kind of ostentatious culinary practices that Roland Barthes decried in 'Ornamental Cookery' written in the mid-1950s. In a critique of Elle magazine's food features, he notes that the emphasis on imagery implies a pompous appeal to sight ('a genteel sense') as opposed to the rougher experiences of touch, smell or taste. He criticised the magazine for presenting to its working-class readership, 'a cookery which is based on coatings and alibis,' stating that the problem to be addressed was not one of how to decorate a partridge but rather how to afford one. He wrote: 'This is an openly dream-like cookery, as proved in fact by the photographs in Elle, which never show the dishes except from a high angle, as objects at once near and inaccessible, whose consumption can perfectly well be accomplished by simply looking.'

Barthes's criticism can be applied to those cookery books which appealed to the mind and the imagination, rather than offering straightforwardly practical instruction; to those recipes which offered up a myth of artichokes, aioli and the happy housewife, in a time when women were marching for their right to a loaf of bread.


Salad The Recipe as Event Score

In 1962, Fluxus artist Alison Knowles set down a proposition.

#2 Proposition
Make a salad.

In a discussion years later she said: 'It was George Brecht who invented the event score, a recipe for action. Instead of recipes, I made "propositions" such as: Make a Salad, or Child Art Piece. These ideas stripped art down to the essentials of our everyday life.'George Brecht seemed to corroborate this origin of the event score with his 1966 piece entitled Event Score, although bearing in mind the Fluxus flexible approach to authorship, this may be taken with a twist of irony:

Event Score
Arrange or discover an event.
Score and then realize it.

His Time Table Event (1961) is often cited as one of the earliest such works. More broadly, his scores swing from precise directions for playing a musical instrument ...

Concert for Clarinet, Fluxversion 2

A clarinet is positioned upright on the floor. Performer with a fishing pole, sitting at a distance of a few feet should attempt to hook, lift and bring to his mouth the reed end of the clarinet. (1962)

... to opaque monosyllables.

Two Durations

And from the very beginning, some event scores dabbled in a curious kind of culinary notation.

Tea Event
preparing empty vessel

Tea Event, Fluxversion 1
Distill tea in a still.

Tied up in Alison Knowles's rejection of the 'recipe' label are all the commonly held assumptions about the contents of cookery books: the imperative verbs, prescriptive and prohibiting instructions, the hortatory ringing of reprimanding mothers and prim home economics teachers, and the authoritarian bravado of master chefs of the Escoffier ilk, all topped off with a judging glance and the anxiety of expectation. Knowles occasionally used the term 'proposition,' shifting closer to an air of suggestion, an offering, or even an Oulipo-esque constraint. Perhaps there is a contract at play in the proposal, a give and take, or gift and receipt, between text and reader, between artist, performer and audience. In fact, Make a Salad is not so far removed from the recipe. Take, for example, these characteristically brief instructions from a writer equally wary of the overly prescriptive recipe, Peg Bracken (from The I Hate to Cook Book, 1960):

Pretty Tomato Dressing

Just mix these things together:

3 whole onions, minced
3 sprigs parsley, chopped fine
2 large tomatoes, diced
1/4 cup Parmesan
1 teaspoon paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 cup sour cream

Or even ...

Chutney Cream


1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup chopped chutney
Juice of 1/2 lemon or lime


George Brecht and Alison Knowles were by no means the only artists to use the term 'score,' or 'event score.' Brecht's work emerged from the catalysing Experimental Composition classes held by John Cage at New York's The New School from 1956–59. Cage's work influenced artist George Maciunas, who was in many ways the leader and prime organiser of Fluxus and the festivals, or Fluxconcerts, first held in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1962. Most of Cage's students were artists with no prior musical training, and among them were Jackson Mac Low, Allan Kaprow, George Brecht, Dick Higgins, Al Hansen and Toshi Ichinayagi (who was married to Yoko Ono from 1956–63). Scores were to be minimal, with no set duration, and with much left to chance. In an essay titled 'Experimental Music', Cage wrote:

And what is the purpose of writing music? One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds. Or the answer must take the form of paradox: a purposeful purposeless or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life — not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we're living, which is so excellent once one gets one's mind and one's desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.

Are chance and purposeless play any better embodied by the term 'score' than they might be by 'recipe'? As a verb the term is unequivocal (to score lines), competitive (to score points), and sexually aggressive (to score). An old score is a bitter grievance yet to be settled. Moreover, musical scores and notation, in the modern western form at least, are in fact highly codified and precise, with a complex lexicon of key signatures, time signatures, bars and beats, alongside an array of Italian directives: adagio, andante, allegro, fortissimo, forte, piano, pianissimo. The recipe also has conventions for notation, though far less formal: a title, ingredients list, instructions, with optional extras such as an introduction or narrative, diagrams or photographs.

What the term 'recipe' can offer is less notation and more annotation. The tips, amendments, successes and failures that append cookery books make up the diaristic crust that adds so much value to family heirlooms and junkshop finds. These scribbles dodge stains in worn margins, existing not only at the edge of pages, but also at the edge of language. In an essay published in 1979, Roland Barthes deliberated over his own daily jottings, proposing the evocative potential of what he called 'interstices of notation.' These are the things not written down, but rather the memories that are conjured and re-formed upon reading the notes on the page. Perhaps they bring to mind shifting sensations that would only be limited and caged by description, the kind of subjective experience and embodied knowledge that cooks rely on for seasoning, consistency and crunch.


Excerpted from Digesting Recipes by Susannah Worth. Copyright © 2014 Susannah Worth. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 Hors d'oeuvre The Recipe as Escape,
2 Salad The Recipe as Event Score,
3 Entrée The Recipe as Mimicry,
4 Main course The Recipe Re-formed,
5 Side dish The Recipe as Reciprocity,
6 First entremet The Recipe as Criticism,
7 Second entremet The Recipe as Critique,
8 Dessert The Recipe as Immaterial Capital,
9 Cheeseboard Some Cookbooks 1941–2015,
Select Ingredients List,

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