I had an email conversation with Anneliese Doyle, A’Guild member and author of The Mix-and-match Menu Cookbook: More than 124,000 Creative Appetizer, Entree, and Dessert Combinations for Sensational Meals. I wanted to ask her about how aspiring food writers can break into the market of selling their recipes.
What reference is the best for new recipe writers when it comes to the formatting, organization, etc of recipe writing?
The one reference I can’t work without is ‘The Recipe Writer’s Handbook’ by Ostmann and Baker. It’s the book I grab for when I’m wondering things like whether “mozzarella” should be capitalized, what the measurements of a standard lasagna pan are, and whether the correct spelling of those big, lovely mushrooms is “portabella” or “portabello.” When I’m stuck on the writing of a cooking preparation, I turn to some of my favorite cookbooks for inspiration. For example, how do the masters describe how to toast nuts or how to trim asparagus? It’s helpful to compare your own descriptions to those of other writers, to make sure that your descriptions are as clear, if not better, than those already out there.
What are some of the friendliest places new recipe writers can break in when it comes to publishing recipes?
The best way to begin recipe writing is to start with some family recipes. Take a look at your grandmother’s handwritten recipe for pot roast or holiday cookies, and ask yourself if it is worthy of being published. It is likely a delicious dish when your grandmother makes it, but can any reader read through the recipe without asking questions as to timing, quantities, etc? Probably not. As precious as the handwritten recipe may be, a great exercise is to format it for publishing. Clarify all of the ingredients and procedures, so that no assumptions are made and the instructions are clear. Purchase the ingredients, paying careful attention to the sizes and labeling of items so that you can clarify these items on your ingredients list. Test the recipe according to your instructions and see if it’s accurate. Make note of the amount of servings the dish makes. Then try to visualize your audience and draft a brief headnote that adds a personal style to the recipe and makes note of any quirks, such as what brand ingredient may work best, or what to serve the dish with. Then finalize a title. “Grandma Cathy’s Pot Roast” may be a great title for some audiences, whereas “Vermont Pot Roast with Parsnips” may be a more appropriate title for others.
More often than not, recipes are treated like sidebars in mainstream, non-food publications. A recipe like your grandmother’s pot roast could accompany a feature article on a small town weekend destination, or a fictional/autobiographical piece that elaborates on the meal. It could accompany a seasonal article on comfort foods, or a feature article profiling your grandmother in a local paper. It’s also in style these days to feature a menu that highlights an event. For example, you could cover a local fundraiser – even a bake sale – and collect the recipes that were made at that event, which could accompany photos of the event and a complete write-up. Another possibility is to take a historical angle. For example, is your town renovating the historical firehouse? Research the renovations, feature some of the veteran fire fighters, and accompany the article with some of the veterans’ favorite firehouse recipes through the years.
What are some common mistakes new recipe writers make when they start out?
Most recipe writers are good cooks. The inherent problem with that is that you make assumptions when you are writing. Therefore when writing recipes for the public, you have to keep in mind that many people are ‘culinary illiterate,’ meaning that it’s necessary to clarify each ingredient and each step of a recipe so that any novice can feel confident when reading the recipe. After all, a recipe is a set of instructions, and to some extent must be written with a technical eye and a gift for accuracy and consistency in writing. Of course, sometimes a recipe is written for advanced or professional cooks, and therefore the language will adjust accordingly to suit your audience.
Read your recipe literally. What is the difference between “2 potatoes, chopped,” and 2 cups of diced new potatoes” ? What is the difference between “1 onion,” and “1 medium white onion, peeled and cut crosswise into rings?” How would a reader interpret “1 bunch parsley, chopped” versus “1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley leaves”? These subleties can make a reader feel comfortable – or completely insecure – about the dish they are making.
Sometimes the technical side of recipe writing can bog you down and make you feel like the romance of food writing has disappeared forever. However, this is where the title, headnote, tips, layout, and photos can come in and give the recipe personality. Once your recipe is finalized, you can even go back and spruce it up a bit with a more personal style in the language, given that you do not alter the essential ingredient list or preparation instructions.