Mediterranean, sun-dried tomato and fennel chutney, with freshly ground allspice, root ginger, and a dash of cayenne pepper. Twice-baked truffle soufflé, with a wild mushroom velouté. Italian rose water and probiotic yoghurt Panna cotta. But just when did an afternoon of making chutney seem possible? Would I ever really risk the humiliation of a soufflé let down, let alone gather my own wild mushrooms and make yoghurt? If you are someone who collects recipes, you will know what it means to have a corner of your life stuffed full of recipes that—go on, admit it—you will never cook.
So why have generations of (mostly) women, collected recipes they have no intention of cooking, and what distinguishes those recipes that remain a fiction from those that inspire me to get my pots and pans dirty?
I know kitchens-full of women who read recipe books for pleasure, whilst lying in bed or having a cup of tea, glancing over risqué towered tortes. Uncooked recipes may look like escape, but they taste like empowerment. Recipe hoarders I have interviewed confessed to lusting after one type of dish in particular—despite the fact that they are never able to cook it. My Russian friend continues to collect recipes for preserving berries in vodka like her Grandmother did, although the berries she needs do not exist in London. Another friend gathers an excessive number of cupcake recipes, scribbled down on post-it notes during her lunch break, and she has never made a single one. One woman realised that she only collected complicated recipes for twelve guests, yet had never held a dinner party. My next-door-neighbour collects dozens of black forest gateaux recipes, but she only ever cooks the one gateau that she knows by heart.
Regardless of how these recipes are stored—filed and colour-coded or stuffed into a drawer with bits of string and unidentified keys—the uncooked alter ego lingers on. Copying a recipe into a book was a unanimous indication that the recipe had been followed, or at least that it had been passed along by a family member or friend to be kept, if not cooked. Yet several of the recipes in my collection do not even have the title of the dish; I must have been so taken by the idea of eating it at the time that I thought it was obvious what it was. Yet I now have to guess from the ingredients and methodology as to what I would end up with—which goes some way to explain why I haven’t cooked them.
Looking through my collection of recipes scribbled on napkins, on the back of envelopes, or stuffed in-between the faded pages of an old cookery book, I wonder whether the meals that never make it onto my plate are an indication of who I want to be, rather than who I am. They express how much time I would like to have, rather than how much I do. And yet not cooking the meal-ideas so carefully cut out and stored away, leaves me intimidated by the voracious circulation of recipes and ways of living that are beyond my reach.
Historically, women have been responsible for cooking in the home, and current research by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations states that women are still “nearly universally responsible” for family food preparation around the world. Women’s lives are therefore more often intertwined with food choices than men’s, and recipes provide a readily available source of self-expression for generations of women who may have cooked one thing, but dreamt another. The reality of one’s financial or social circumstances limit how and what one can eat, yet collecting recipes gives a taste of consuming beyond one’s means.
The kinds of recipes we’re attracted to and how we collect them indicate our relationship to ourselves, past and present. I collect recipes for an idyllic past full of soups, multi-layered cakes, English scones, and picnic spreads. My mum continues to snatch recipe cards from the supermarket check-out, and post them to me where ever I am in the world. Food is love, and these recipes give me a sense of security and reassurance. Even if I’m not at home, I can always have a meal to make Mr Sainsbury proud.
On the other hand, I have recipes for who I want to be in the future. Nutritious alternatives for when I get home late at night. Ten things I didn’t know I could do with tofu. Recipes for weight loss, recommendations for sourcing local ingredients, or how to use forgotten English ingredients like quince and Kentish cob nuts. Healthier, slimmer, more ethical. These are all things I want to be, but never allow myself to be completely because of how I conceive of myself personally, socially, and culturally. Food is a social marker; although we may feel like we choose what we eat each night, what we place in our mouths is an indication of where we are placed by society.
So am I just getting ahead of myself with these recipe fantasies? Its not that the dishes I select are impossible for me to cook, or even especially complicated, it is just that I don’t have a chutney-sized space in my life. Certain foods are tied to lifestyles, and I want to be a homemade-preserves-and-soufflé kinda person. Yet I do not eat my way into that reality. If I made chutney I would make it in my knickers wearing a chunky cardigan and wellies. I would date a boy who would love pickles. And cheddar. We would have old furniture, wooden floors, and my friends would bring round their home-grown vegetables for me to chutnify and invent other words whilst doing so. If I could make soufflé from memory, I would always brush my hair and my children would speak French. I would have good quality wallpaper, better dress sense, and bespoke cutlery. Having the recipes is close enough to cooking them, and I can create a stable fictional version of myself amongst the recipes I do not cook, which is infinitely more pleasing than the person who only really tries new recipes once a month.
Reading about our cake and not cooking it has been referred to as food porn. Nigella Lawson tells us that “we’re all now gatropornographers,” and that, “it makes perfect sense that in our puritanical age the last allowable excess should be gastroporn.” Like pornography, reading rather than cooking a recipe enables vicarious enjoyment without the risk of implicating oneself in the act. As we read about gently caramelising the onion, there is no possibility of it getting stuck to the bottom of the pan, for the phone to ring, or for us to get impatient and just add the vegetables anyway. Each step is flawless, it takes just five minutes to make, is very low in calories, and there is no washing up.
If pornography is associated with pleasures of the body, reading and collecting recipes implicates the soul. I see collecting recipes as a kind of gastrospiritual call and response between who you are, and who you want to be. It would be so boring and beautiful to be and cook everything I wish I could, because I always need to not be able to cook something—otherwise what would I live for?
The recipes we collect over time change; my mother has recipes from the 70s that use cream and gelatine in ways that would even make Nigella blush, but my mother is now moving into the world of wilted baby spinach and spicy Mexican fare. My meals are peppered with my past, as I cook curry to taste living with a family in Kerala for five months, I fry Spanish tortilla for my long lost Hispanic lover, and still make my Aunt Ivy’s Christmas pudding. Even though I never met her. As I get older I have learnt more about what I’m likely to cook, and I try to restrict the number of fifty-seven step recipes that I keep.
Women’s lives are constantly in motion as we circulate into different phases: jobs, partners, states of health, or finally move into a flat with a dishwasher—and our way of comprehending ourselves through cooking must be equally in flux. As we fold a recipe into a book, we are folding an articulation of where we are in our lives into the mix. Keeping a pile of potential lifestyles in our kitchen drawer may seem redundant, but as our lives spread out like a ginger root, rhizomatically connecting through the interrelated pressures of modern life, a collection of recipes signposts where we’ve been and where we would like to go.