Thursday, September 04, 2008

Recipe for Disaster

Slashfood.com has a bizarre report here about a typo in a recipe that resulted in four people being poisoned (despite what sounds a massive effort by the magazine to warn subscribers of the danger once they found out about it.) Thanks to some research I did for a story, I happen to know large quantities of nutmeg is dangerous. Even if I didn't, though, I doubt I'd put what is roughly equivalent to 60 teaspoons of any spice into a single recipe.

But: I did follow a Cooking Light magazine recipe once that called for among other things three very hot peppers, and fortunately tested it myself before serving it (and just about scorched my mouth off.) Since we don't like our food that hot, I tossed it out and made it over, this time with 1/8 of one pepper. In the next month's issue, the editors apologized for what turned out to be a typo with the peppers in that recipe (which redeemed me; my guy thought I'd messed up something.)

I'd rather make someone else's recipe than share one of my own with strangers. Unless it's a 100% foolproof dish like my No-Brainer Fudge, I always worry other people won't like it. When I was asked to contribute one of my own recipes for a GCI book I wrote, I actually panicked. I put together about a dozen of my best dishes and then had my family taste them and vote before I decided which one might be good enough to share with the readers. Then I wrote up the recipe (and promptly made it again following the written version to make sure I'd listed everything correctly and in the right order.)

I like writing about food and cooking in general terms; I did a lot of that in the GCI novels and it was fun (because it was not specific enough to make me worry, I guess.) I also like reading recipes other authors sometimes put in themed anthologies or in the back of their novels. Sometimes what writers like to cook tells you something you otherwise might not know about them. For example: the reason I like my no-brainer fudge so much is that I hate using candy thermometers; over the years I've broken about twenty of them.

Readers, do you like to see actual recipes included in the fiction books you read? Would you enjoy the story more if the author told you how to make a dish that appears in the novel? Writers, what's your stand on writing recipes for your readers?

45 comments:

  1. Well let's put it this way: I like a lot of Joanne Harris' work. Aswell as the fictional works of Anthony Bourdain. Also Pat Conroy seems to write a whole lot about food in his books, and it works.

    I think it's a good way to set the mood for the scene described, but I generally don't enjoy "real recipes" in fiction.

    But then again - I'm "one of those guys" ;-)

    Speaking of "the nutmeg incident". Here in sweden there were some talk about lawsuits and stuff following this. Is it only me, or is it fair to say that people might use a bit of logic or a sound critical mind reading? What do they want? Warning labels? (Warning: Snickers bar - if deepfried and put down pants may cause genital scarring!) (Warning: Fork - sharp ends! Not for use in ones own eye!)

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  2. I've never found myself wondering how to cook something a character ate... but I'll say this: Chuck Palahniuk's "Survivor" made me want to never, ever eat Lobster. (You'll know why if you've read the book. If you haven't, I won't ruin it.)

    That said, if a recipe appeared, and it sounded yummy, I wouldn't be averse to trying it out. :)

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  3. Except in unusual circumstances I would say no. Giving a recipe in enough detail for a reader to recreate it breaks up the flow of the story for me, unless the recipe is extremely simple (2 chocolate bars and a tub of Cool Whip!). Even in the Goldie Bear murder mysteries, where she's a caterer and the recipes are pretty good, they still stick out for me, and I would rather they were put in an appendix.

    The worst inserted recipe I can remember was a complete recipe for homemade llama sausage - starting with the llama carcass - inserted into the middle of a Martian colony story for no apparent good reason. Aaack!

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  4. Well, there's a curious thing. I've just been looking at Cooks.com for a recipe for Coconut Chicken. (Cue Twilight Zone music.)

    I'm not a fan of recipes in fiction - unless it's an integral part of the story and woven in.

    I love to read recipe books because they are recipe books. I read fiction for the same reason.

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  5. Funny,

    I remember a rectification about three years ago when a supermarket passed out december recipes for speculaas (brown spiced biscuits here in the Netherlands).

    Translated it read something like this;

    "In our last issue we told you to add 2 dl (cups) of water, this should be 2 tl (tea spoons) of water."

    Imagine all the desperate mothers and nagging kids. Your basic culinary apocalypse.

    Sinterklaas (dutch Santa Claus) never was the same again.

    Grtz

    Tayelrand

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  6. I love food in writing. I put it in my own; I enjoy it in others. For me it's something that makes a world come alive. If character hates the taste of lemon, her reaction to that taste brings her to life for me far more than knowing she has a degree in chemistry.

    I'm hoping it's not just me. I spend a lot of my life doing food things (I teach and blog about food history, for instance). I don't think it is just me, though: I think it is that the five senses in fiction bring that ficiton to life. Of the five senses, taste and smell are the most evocative. And food has both.

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  7. I have no particular feelings about recipes in fiction. I remember once a magazine published recipes for dishes based on what appeared in films, and I don't think there was one of them I could eat. So much food is off-limits due to peculiarities in sqrl taste-buds! lol

    So probably it would be a recipe I wouldn't cook anyway, which would mildly depress me, as I get mildly depressed whenever we go for take-out or to eat in a restaurant, looking for the one thing on the menu I can eat. Which they've then run out of, more often than not.

    Bah.

    When writing my books about alternate Romans, I do consult an ancient recipe book for meal ideas, so I would probably put a reference to that book at the back of mine if/when published, so people could try out the cooking if they wanted.

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  8. I actually have made several of the recipes from Anna McCaffery's Pern books, bubbly pies are a favorite with my friends. If it's something uncommon but good I would try the recipe if it was included in a fiction novel. Actually I blame bubbly pies on my now excellent (toots own horn) pie crust making skills, cause I had a lot of practice making the silly things for everyone.

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  9. There is a Swedish author that did exactly that, adding a recipe at the end of the book. It is nice, but it is not why I by his book.

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  10. "Readers, do you like to see actual recipes included in the fiction books you read?"
    Personally, no. And I'm not sure why. Maybe something to do with the fourth wall.

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  11. I think food is always a good topic. Recipes, those are good too. Although I've never followed a recipe I've seen in a book.

    Shuddering at the thought of 60 teaspoons of ANY seasoning. Blech.

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  12. I have a shelf full of cookbooks. I have a shelf full of novels. When I'm choosing what to make for dinner, I don't go to the fiction shelf.

    I'm sure there are fine and wonderful recipes in novels, but novels with recipes seem like a gimmick.

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  13. I would find it jarring to see a recipe included in the middle of the novel. I've seen a couple of books that have recipes at the end, and they don't bother me, but I've never been tempted to try one of the recipes either. It always strikes me as a little strange, too, to find a recipe for the apple pie the main character cooked; invariably, when I was reading, I was focused on the character's predicament and not drooling at the thought of the pie. But it's rare for me to encounter recipes in a book, since the books I read don't tend to feature food prominently.

    As for including recipes in a book, I can't imagine doing it for any of my books, because food is never important to my plots. If I did write a book where food was important to the plot, and an editor wanted me to include a recipe, I wouldn't mind doing it... but the idea wouldn't occur to me on my own.

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  14. I'm interested in recipes in fiction if the dish is something exotic or somehow integral to the book. I'm not likely to try them out though - my cooking skills mostly run along the lines of stick 'em in the microwave and nuke 'em.

    A note on nutmeg: never realised till now that the nut (seed) is used as a spice. Where I come from, we eat the fruit (fleshy bit) in a pickled form as a snack, so I always assumed 'nutmeg spice' came from 'nutmeg fruit'. The pickled fruit is actually a delicacy from a particular part of the country (sort of like what chocolate is for Belgium). I'm happy to report I've comsumed quite a lot of the pickled fruit but have never been poisoned. I think the locals where I live would be amazed at the thought of nutmeg being poisonous.

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  15. Another thing about the nutmeg :) To be fair to those who got poisoned, I would probably have done the same as them. If you've never used / encountered nutmeg in cooking, why would you think it's different from any other nut? If a recipe had asked for 20 almonds or 20 walnuts, I would've put in 20. So too, with the nutmeg. I do feel the magazine should take some responsibility for the mistake. Typos in a magazine is one thing; typos in a magazine teaching people how to prepare food for consumption is dangerous. A good argument for not including recipes in your books, I think! :)

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  16. I think recipes within the actual text of the book disrupt the flow of the novel.

    Now, that's not to say that having a recipe in a story for comic effect (my third novel start contained a character who was, shall we say, palately impaired, and it was fun to list some ingredients of his dishes so the reader would know how bad a cook he was,) or for someone to brag about certain ingredients in food.

    However, if there are actual recipes involved which you want to share, my personal preference is to got the route Fannie Flagg took with "Fired Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe'" and put the recipes at the end in an index.

    Colin

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  17. I really like it when a good recipe is included at the end of a book. Like Patricia Wrede's "Quick After Battle Triple Chocolate Cake."

    Some books don't have recipes and need them. While/After reading McKinley's Sunshine, both my husband and I craved cinnamon rolls to no end. But no recipe was in sight. Fortunately, I had the internet ready with many...but it would have been cool to have a recommended recipe from the person who made us salivate while reading about vampires!

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  18. Unless the characters are cooks or chefs or people to whom cooking matters a whole lot, I don't care whether they include recipes. That said, in the Spenser series by Robert B. Parker, Spenser enjoys cooking and eating. It's part of his character. Although he doesn't include recipes, a couple of times I've tried to recreate a dish. One in particular that I like calls for throwing garlic cloves, bunches of parsley and basil, kosher salt, pistachio nuts and olive oil into a food processor to whirl up a quick pesto-like mixture for hot pasta. It's delicious. I did not have good luck with a pork tenderloin en croute and I had to search through several books to find out about a Cumberland sauce. (This was pre-Internet.)

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  19. I usually ignore recipes in fiction. I do recall one story in which a character poisoned another chatacter by serving fish with mint sauce. No one else I know seems to know if that's truly a deadly combo--anyone here know about fish and mint together?

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  20. You are in my head!

    I have a contemp I just wrote and in it is a (not in proper format) a recipie for Bliss-a best seller in a diner where I used to eat. I used it for the meaning of the word, and for the food!

    warm a 1/4 block of cream cheese in the nuker
    fold in two scrambled eggs, three slices of crumbled bacon and a tablespoon of chives. Salt and pepper to taste. They served it over toasted English muffins and people ordered it by the table.

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  21. Anonymous9:50 AM

    As a matter of fact, I was a bit surprised when there were no recipies when I read the Cruisie/Mayer book Agnes and the Hitman. Since Agnes was a food writer, and the scene where she cooks Pecan Sour Cream pancakes made my stomach growl, I did hope the recipie would be included in the back of the book.
    I'm reading A Little Ray of Sunshine now by Lani Rich and there are Blueberry Yogurt pancakes in that book. Maybe I just like breakfast too much, or maybe it's because I cook 3 meals a day almost 7days a week for my family, and I get tired of my own recipies after awhile. But, yes, I'd read recipies at the end of the book.
    PS Glad you're back.
    JulieB

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  22. Mention of "bubbly pies" reminded me how tedious I find the endless descriptions of meals in some authors' books. It's not like the food advances the plot. I suppose it goes down as "world-building", but I could do without a lot of it.

    Also, clothes. I don't need to read about dress uniforms with silver piping. Honest. Or how much the author luuuuuuuuuuurves Kipling.

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  23. I'd be more worried about someone getting sick from following my directions than whether or not they "like" it. Taste is too subjective to worry about "like".

    That said, I have posted my own recipes on my personal blog. And, family and friends invariably tell me about some critical piece of info I forgot to write down that messed up the result (duh...like they can't read my mind....).

    I don't mind recipes in fiction, but I'm not sure I've ever bothered to make any of them. They would be a good tie-in to post on a blog or website though, as an extra for fans.

    And, to Jasper, did Bourdain write fiction? I thought he had a couple of "memoir"-ish books out, not straight fiction....and I don't remember wanting recipes from an expose of the "culinary underbelly" :)

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  24. Food in print, hmmm... makes me hungry just thinking about it.

    Laura Esquivel's Like Water For Chocolate was fun. Anthony Bourdain's books are enjoyable, even his non-fiction books when he riffs on bad service and preparation.

    But if you give recipes in a book, they should be relevant the story. It would seem silly to suddenly break into a brownie recipe or a recipe for Mu Shu Pork in the middle of a action thriller with guns, bombs and lots of violence.

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  25. Anonymous11:16 AM

    I enjoy recipes in stories where they make sense in that they fit with the story.
    example:
    _Like Water for Chocolate_ - interesting-looking recipes, but on a scale far too great for one person

    The China Bayles series by Susan Wittig Albert - herb-themed recipes to match her herb-themed cozies.

    Recipes are sometimes distracting, if - for example - an author puts excessive detail into meal preparation that does not tie into the story.

    I'd want to be darn sure that my recipe was nearly foolproof before I added it to a story.

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  26. I'm very indifferent to them, personally. Recipes (or, as I've seen in other books, knitting patterns) can be a fun gimmick, but they're not something I need to entice me to read a book. If there is an audience out there who will only buy a book if they feel they're getting the Special Extended Author's Cut, then by all means include a recipe. But I probably won't try it.

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  27. Jesper wrote: Is it only me, or is it fair to say that people might use a bit of logic or a sound critical mind reading? What do they want? Warning labels? (Warning: Snickers bar - if deepfried and put down pants may cause genital scarring!) (Warning: Fork - sharp ends! Not for use in ones own eye!)

    Lol. I'm not reading any more of your comments while I was drinking (wiping off the monitor.)

    I think it comes down to experience and common sense. I cook a lot and I like to read books about food and cooking, so when a recipe doesn't sound right I usually step back and take a hard look at it. The over-peppered dish called for peppers I'd never cooked with, however, so I had no idea how hot they were.

    Some people do strange things yet put a lot of trust in the printed word. Maybe that's why on bottles of hair dye here in the U.S. there's a warning label: "Do not use as ice cream topping."

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  28. Cameron wrote: Chuck Palahniuk's "Survivor" made me want to never, ever eat Lobster.

    Oh, yeah, I can relate. I haven't been able to eat strawberry pie since reading King's "Thinner."

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  29. Perpetual Beginner wrote: The worst inserted recipe I can remember was a complete recipe for homemade llama sausage - starting with the llama carcass - inserted into the middle of a Martian colony story for no apparent good reason. Aaack!

    Yikes. I guess NASA will never stop crashing weird things on that planet. ;)

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  30. Jaye wrote: I've just been looking at Cooks.com for a recipe for Coconut Chicken. (Cue Twilight Zone music.)

    I've made this recipe for Over-fried Coconut Chicken and can recommend it, although the coconut flavor is a bit on the strong side. I don't know if you can get fresh coconut milk where you are, but that makes it taste better than the canned stuff.

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  31. Tayelrand wrote: "In our last issue we told you to add 2 dl (cups) of water, this should be 2 tl (tea spoons) of water."

    Speculaas soup! Lol.

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  32. Ok, I love nutmeg. I use it in almost all food, and my body proabably needs it to function these days. But 20 entire nuts in one cake? That's nuts. :)

    I'm not fond or receipes in books. I mostly read a night and that stuff makes me hungry. But we all know late night calories are the worst. ;)

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  33. I like getting recipes in books. I can't say I'll always make the dishes or desserts, but love to have the recipes ready if I wanted to cook something. I like the idea of either having all the recipes in the back or at the end of a chapter, so if you don't want to read it, you can skip over to the next chapter.

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  34. In novels I have read where the author inserts a recipe, it seems to act as a great big speed-break to the flow of the story. Unless it was absolutely integral to the content of the story (ie, the substitution of an ingredient is what killed a character) I wouldn't do it.

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  35. I love to read cookbooks and books about food, but recipes in fiction do tend to knock me out of the story.

    I do like your no-brainer fudge which I have shamelessly accepted compliments for without giving you any credit.

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  36. Lynn,
    This is not relevant to the current discussion but felt like I needed to ask you a question. I have been writing for years, 20 to be exact, published once, nothing major, but I have a drawer full of 300 page beginnings. Your Editing posting a few weeks ago, about not editing ourselves to death... a godsend. I wrote an entire novel in less then 30 days, and I think its some of my best.
    So first of all, thanks... you are a life saver. Second, how long, between novels, until the 'muse' returns? After this last one, its been almost a week. Am I worrying about the lack of the 'muse' too much? Advice???

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  37. Recipe at the back of the book works for me.
    A hot cocoa with creme de menthe recipe that was referenced in a romance and then shared by the author separately is one of my favorites.

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  38. As long as the recipe didn't call for 20 nutmeg nuts... oye.

    I don't mind seeing them, but unless I was really intrigued by the way the recipe related to the book, I dunno tht I'd try it.

    Well, unless it was really, really tempting....

    ;)

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  39. I don't like to see recipes (or at least not very involved recipes) in the middle of chapters, because that breaks up the book too much for me. If they're for something appropriate to the story, though, I do like seeing them at the end of chapters or the book.

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  40. Oh I love culinary mysteries where they include recipes for the dishes. I haven't actually tried too many of them, but then I have an enormous file of recipes to try "when I have time"--so in like 30 years when I retire...

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  41. I'm one of those weirdos who really likes recipes included in the book. I don't care whether they're placed in an index or willy-nilly in the book. I can skip over them as I'm reading and then look at them again when I finish that chapter. They don't bother me.

    Of course, I also really love to cook, and I'm always open to new recipes, so maybe that has something to do with it.

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  42. My husband never uses a recipe. I at least have to start from that point, even if I substitute ingredients or add others. I just barely consider myself an adequate cook.

    I've only included food items once or twice in a story, and seldom do I go so far as to indicate the full recipe. I'll have her at the stove stirring chicken pieces in a frying pan, or cutting fresh vegetables on the butcher block next to the sink. But I don't think I'll ever write: "She went to the cupboard and pulled down the nutmeg and cinnamon to add a tablespoon of each to the bubbling pot of stewing apples for Apple Spice Pie."

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  43. Cynthia Dalton3:38 PM

    I enjoy recipies in books if the main character is a caterer, chef or gourmet. In general though, unless there is something linking that specific recipie to the plot, a general description of the food is better.

    I love the recipies in Diane Mott Davidson's Goldy Bear mysteries because they are ones she invents on the spur of the moment for her catering clients or family. I liked these included in the text at the appropriate point, but an appendix of recipies works too.

    As I recall, Anne McCaffery's Pern recipies were published in a stand along book about the series and not in the individual books themselves.

    If authors have all their world building information written down, a nonfiction style book about the world(s) their books are set in could be very interesting for their fans. I have read some that were written by other people using the original author's background(with permission).

    I know nothing about writing books except it's too hard for me, so I don't know whether any of this is something worthwhile to persue.

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  44. gillpolack wrote: If character hates the taste of lemon, her reaction to that taste brings her to life for me far more than knowing she has a degree in chemistry.

    Agreed. Portrayals of the senses in fiction tend to engage me more than other types of description, maybe because the senses are really the ultimate physical common denominator.

    I'm hoping it's not just me. I spend a lot of my life doing food things (I teach and blog about food history, for instance). I don't think it is just me, though: I think it is that the five senses in fiction bring that ficiton to life. Of the five senses, taste and smell are the most evocative. And food has both.

    I agree with you, although with so many women out there who are constantly dieting, well-written food in fiction can be something of a torment. I know I try never to read Poppy Z. Brite, Anthony Bourdain or Peter Mahle when I've gone vegan or I'm relegated to eating squirrel food. :)

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  45. Buffysquirrel wrote: When writing my books about alternate Romans, I do consult an ancient recipe book for meal ideas, so I would probably put a reference to that book at the back of mine if/when published, so people could try out the cooking if they wanted.

    When, Buff, when. :)

    I tried out a couple of ancient middle-eastern recipes when I was doing a WFH job that required extensive description of the living conditions of the people in the novel. Although many of the ingredients were unfamiliar, I found most of them quite palatable, and one vegan stew in particular surprisingly good. I was a complete failure at ancient bread-making techniques, however. My one loaf came out like hardtack laced with gravel. ;)

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