The Role Of Narrative In Recipes
Before I wrap up this episode with a list of my best practices for writing a well-crafted recipe drawing on all the stuff we’ve learned in the first two installments of this series, I’d like to take a quick pit-stop in our current time to consider a recipe trend I find charming – but only to a point.
Here’s when this trend first really occurred to me – and let me preface this by saying I do not own a television and I do not watch network TV on the reg, so I’m often oblivious to certain popular trends until they smack me in the face. That’s exactly what happened here.
It was New Year’s 2018, and my wife and I were in Lisbon for a trip she was taking as a business school requirement. And, wouldn’t you know it – I happened to contract just about the worst case of Norovirus that anyone has ever had the pleasure to meet. So there I was, lying feverishly in a hotel room in a foreign country, and the station I told my wife to leave on while she left for the day happened to be the Food Network – but not the good ol’ American Food Network – remember, we’re in Europe, so I was watching some UK version of the Food Network and they happened to be airing an all-day marathon of a show called Siba’s Table.
Now, I grew up watching chefs like Emeril Legassi and others who did cooking demonstrations – often in front of live studio audiences – but where the show was centered wholly around the food. But Siba had a style all her own. All I can remember about that day is lapsing in and out of fever dreams, listening helplessly (for I could not reach the remote) about how we were making this dish because Siba’s in-laws were visiting, and we needed to make this dessert because she was being visited by a childhood friend who had a mango tree in her backyard, and all the while we got to watch her husband entertain their two kids while Siba shopped for ingredients and prepped the dishes.
I don’t know if it was the cramps and cold sweats or the deluge of unnecessary plot lines that had me more bent out of shape that day, but I continue to be fascinated by the use of narrative (or story arcs) in recipes, and very quick to point out when someone goes overboard.
The Pioneer Woman
The U.S. has its own version of Siba’s Table in the form of The Pioneer Woman, who not only has a show with a similar format on The Food Network, but she also has a line of cheaply made cookware and serving ware that will break if you look at it the wrong way – I can tell you that from personal experience. In essence, the host, Ree Drummond is out there on her Oklahoma ranch living the American dream. Did the kids just get done wrastlin’ in the hay field? Let’s whip up grandma’s famous lemonade! Is the husband tired from a day milking horses out in the south pasture? Time for some deep fried shepherd’s pie! And for dessert? Well, you’ll get a heapin’ helpin’ of staged, scripted banter that somehow makes you feel like you’re just another member of the family.
I think you can see where I’m going with this. At a certain point, a recipe is no longer a recipe when you spoon feed it to people in the form of “info-tainment.” It may have been a recipe at one point, but when the delivery is somehow contingent on filling a 20 minute time slot to feed you ads…well, I’m gonna go ahead and unsubscribe.
When and How Narrative Can Work
That’s why I began this episode with Pablo’s wonderfully thoughtful and beautifully articulated story about his Sherry Martini with Pickled Morels. Let’s walk through it so I can show you what I mean in light of Siba’s Table and The Pioneer Woman:
Was there a story or an initiating incident? Yep. The story was, it’s Spring, and spring means morel mushrooms. Pablo likes to forage them – it’s a good excuse to get some exercise outdoors.
Was there a problem to solve or a reason why he made this recipe? Absolutely. He foraged some morels that were dry, and he was able to re-purpose them by pickling them and using them as a cocktail garnish.
Was useful information conveyed? Yes. Not only did Pablo give us the cocktail recipe, which he customized using carefully chosen ingredients from his bar and explaining why he selected each one, but he also gives us a bonus recipe in the form of his pickling liquid. He also told us about Morels and how to identify them.
I love a good story – but all good stories are real, just like Pablo’s, not constructed in order to prevent you from changing the channel. Remember that last detail of Brillat-Savarin’s favorite fondue recipe?
Call for the best wine, which will be copiously drunk, and you will see miracles.