Putting Food Into Words: Recipe Writing With Marc Murphy

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On this episode of Food 360, host Marc Murphy sits down with Melissa Clark, author of over 40 cookbooks and 65 recipes a year for the New York Times, though perhaps her greatest achievement is introducing the world to the deep-fried Twinkie. (“If that’s my only claim to fame, I’m happy,” she laughs.) They talk about the dinners they’ve ruined, why Melissa hates Thanksgiving, the impact of Instagram, and the challenges of putting food into words. Marc published a cookbook recently, so his admiration for Melissa’s skill is obvious: “It was great to be able to sit down and talk to somebody who actually writes recipes, and take my mind and put it on a piece of paper,” Marc says. “For me, it would’ve been extremely difficult to actually be able to do a whole book that way. I’d still be working on it.” 


Melissa got into food writing not just because she likes eating food, but because she loved reading about it. “Every time I read a novel I go to the food part of it,” she says. “I wanted to eat a million oysters because of Anna Karenina, or Don Quixote where 'Sancho Panza' is romancing this idea of eating bread and onions together with salt and olive oil,” and that can sometimes inspire her recipes. But even though she’s inspired by flowery food verse, she tries not to employ it when she’s writing. “Really, what’s riding on your recipe is someone else’s dinner,” she points out. “I want my recipes to work...the most important thing for me is not my writing ego. It’s getting people to cook delicious food.” 

Writing recipes with “clarity and specificity” is more challenging that you might think, as Marc discovered when he had his entire staff of chefs go to a recipe-writing class, where they were assigned a deceptively easy task: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “Some of them ended up with...the peanut butter and jelly on the outside,” Marc says, “because they didn’t specify you had to put the peanut butter against the jelly side when you put the sandwich together.” Melissa laughs, but she knows exactly how hard it is to describe a sandwich: “I probably have written a million recipes like that, and...it’s still a struggle to figure out the exact way to tell people to put the bread together,” she says. “It sounds like the easiest thing in the world, but just try to put it into words!” 

vintage cookbook with handwritten recipe

Marc gives another example: when he was yelled at by a woman who made a tuna recipe of his incorrectly. Marc had written to put one star anise in the pan while poaching the tuna, and she substituted for a tablespoon of ground star anise. “Of course her dinner was ruined,” Marc says. Melissa wonders how she would have written it: “One thing that comes up a lot for that particular ingredient is, ‘do I mean a whole flower, or do I mean a petal?” 

“It’s tricky,” Marc agrees. “I think people that never write recipes have to understand how meticulous you have to be in your description.” 

Join Marc and Melissa to learn more about the nuances in recipe writing, the merits of the metric system in the kitchen, and whether or not Chef Boyardee and Oscar Meyer were real people, on this episode of Food 360

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Photos: Getty Images


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