Out with the new and in with the old?

old cookbooks

Modern recipes usually include a detailed list of ingredients accompanied by explicit instructions, both painstakingly assembled to ensure that your finished dish is the best it can be. These recipes are often written in a very direct manner, with the ingredient list at the beginning, followed by straightforward, workman-like instructions. In the past, recipes used to be written in more narrative way, and that method has a lot going for it, says Tamar Adler of The New York Times Magazine.

Adler laments the shift from narrative prose to the taut verbiage in today's recipes. She believes there is a lot to learn from the old method. As an example she provides a 1774 pudding recipe, which she describes as "more specific and harder to forget than any contemporary pudding recipe I can think of: 'Scald your quinces very tender, pare them very thin; scrape off the soft; mix it with sugar very sweet, put in a little ginger and a little cinnamon. To a pint of cream you must put three or four yolks of eggs, and stir it into your quinces till they are of a good thickness. It must be pretty thick. So you may do apricots or white pear-plums. Butter your dish, pour it in and bake it.'"

What we lose, says Adler, by removing all of the "binding" in recipes like noting the season or providing descriptions like "a good thickness",  is a broader connection to the world around us. She believes we would develop our senses more--and thereby become better cooks--if we relied less on the precision of modern recipes. 

Do you agree with her assessment? Or do you believe that modern recipes provide us with much better meals than the older recipes which, although quaint to read, don't produce great results?


  • Kathy Henr  on  8/29/2015 at 11:51 AM

    When I was first married in 1970 I received the Charleston Recipe book from a friend of my MIL. I believe it is the 1950 version. Kathy

  • tcjanes  on  8/29/2015 at 12:47 PM

    A little fact checking for you-Tamar is a woman.

  • Jane  on  8/29/2015 at 3:50 PM

    Thanks tcjanes - now corrected.

  • mfto  on  8/30/2015 at 7:59 AM

    Since I am retired, I am all the quaint I can cope with in my life. I appreciate clear, brief instructions because I am not a natural born cook. I need help; not entertainment. No guessing games please. If I were trying to make the pudding recipe...no, wait, I would never even attempt to make that pudding. Too scary.

  • BethNH  on  8/30/2015 at 9:01 AM

    I think these recipes served a purpose at a time when every woman learned to cook from her mother and grandmother. Recipes were just a way to further that knowledge. Many men and women today had no one to learn from. I grew up in a home where the microwave was the most used cooking instrument and came home each day expected to cook for my siblings. Both of my grandmothers and my mother worked and all were bad cooks. I like to think of myself as a good cook but all my knowledge has come from books. I appreciate the detailed instructions in cookbooks that allowed even a 10 year old to get dinner on the table.

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