Bee Wilson, writing in The New Yorker, on the pleasures of reading recipes:
Recipe readers are always talking about how cookbooks are like novels, and there’s a clue here to how we actually read them. Like a short story, a good recipe can put us in a delightful trance. The Oxford English Dictionary defines fiction as literature “concerned with the narration of imaginary events.” This is what recipes are: stories of pretend meals. Don’t be fooled by the fact that they are written in the imperative tense (pick the basil leaves, peel the onion). Yes, you might do that tomorrow, but right now, you are doing something else. As you read, your head drowsily on the pillow, there is no onion, but you watch yourself peel it in your mind’s eye, tugging off the papery skin and noting with satisfaction that you have not damaged the layers underneath.
Wilson writes the piece after reading William Sitwell’s A History of Food in 100 Recipes. Wilson continues:
My favorite recipe was No. 65, “Creamed Mushrooms,” taken from “The International Jewish Cookbook,” by Florence Kreisler Greenbaum (1919). The recipe itself is for mushrooms simmered in a béchamel sauce with “a gill of cream” added. “Cooked like this,” Greenbaum tells us, “mushrooms have more nutritive value than beef.” Sitwell uses the recipe as a springboard into a discussion of the pop-up toaster (invented by Charles Strite in the same year as Greenbaum’s cookbook), and the “frantic and fiercely fought battles” driving rival patents for toast-making. Finally, he ponders “the Cat and the Buttered Toast Theory.” Buttered toast is notorious for landing buttered-side down. Likewise, it is said that a cat “if dropped, always lands on its feet.” So, Sitwell asks, “what happens if you tie a slice of buttered toast to the cat’s back? When the cat is dropped, will the two opposing forces of butter and feet cause the cat to hover?”
[B]eing asked to read recipes for their own sake, rather than with a view to cooking, gives a clearer sense of how they stimulate our imaginations. The vast majority of the recipes we read are hypothetical.
Read the rest here.