Ditching List Recipes for Old-Style Suggestions & Experimentation

Recipes became precisely measured and formulaic during the past sixty years because they could: with the rise of so-called conventional agriculture and the choosing of food varieties for uniform shape and size and shelf life, it became possible to publish a recipe that assumed your egg was the same size as my egg.

This point came home to me when I spent Thanksgiving with my friends Scott and Todd just outside Ithaca. My former Brooklyn neighbors are raising three kinds of chickens.


They have more eggs than they can keep up with, and sent me home with 1.5 dozen in various sizes and colors.


Contemporary recipes start with a list of measured ingredients followed by a numbered list of steps. That’s fine if your egg is an industrial ag supermarket egg and your onions are all the “medium” size required by the recipe. But what if you’ve got tiny pullet eggs or smallish CSA onions or huge garlic cloves or a bunch of kale that may or may not be what the recipe’s author meant by “a large bunch of kale”?

The recipes of earlier generations were gentler in so far as they did not expect an exact match between the writer’s kitchen and the reader’s. They were more demanding in that they assumed some basic cooking knowledge on the reader’s end, which today may not be a safe assumption. But at least they took into account differences in cooking equipment, as in this footnote to a recipe for pancake batter in Elizabeth David’s Summer Cooking: “Quantities given make eight to twelve pancakes according to the size of your pan.”

I find that nod to the likely differences between her kitchen and mine much more civilized than today’s recipes that tell me exactly the size of the pan I need (and if I don’t have that particular pan I am left with the choice to toss out the recipe or go shopping for that particular piece of equipment).

I think that if the local food movement continues to grow, and as consumers choose flavor and environmental merit over uniformity and shelf life, our cookbooks will need to go through yet another transformation. Your butternut squash may not be the same size as my butternut squash, even if we’re getting them from the same farm. So a recipe calling for “1 large butternut squash” won’t mean much. Of course, this means we’ll have to experiment a bit, make some mistakes, learn how to eyeball amounts. To me, that’s what really learning to cook is all about.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that yeah, there are some recipes in my new book, The Locavore’s Handbook. And yeah, I had a few tussles with my editors when I wanted to use ratios instead of measurements (for example, 1 part salt to 4 parts minced vegetables and herbs for the preserved veg. recipe called verdurette. How many servings? my publisher wanted to know. Well, that depends on how many vegetables and herbs you started out with…). So some of the recipes ended up in the list-of-measurements-followed-by-numbered-steps format, and some in the use-what-you’ve-got format. I like to think the mix is respectful of both the reader and the food.


Botany, Ballet, & Dinner from Scratch: A Memoir with Recipes by Leda Meredith (foreward by Ellen Zachos) Book signing and party with lots of fun eco-minded folk this Thurs. Dec. 3rd with Green Edge NYC!

The Locavore’s Handbook: The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget by Leda Meredith (foreward by Sandor Ellix Katz)

2 responses to “Ditching List Recipes for Old-Style Suggestions & Experimentation”

  1. acmeplant says:

    You are SO right! And I’ve never seen anyone else address this, so thanks very much. What about taking measurements by wieght or volume, like 1/4 cup of eggs or 1 cup of squash pulp?

    • ledameredith says:

      Yes, I think weight measurements (the standard in European recipes but not here) are excellent, and volume measurements for things like eggs and squash pulp are definitely more helpful than single unit measurements such as “1 large squash.”

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