Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Recipe etiquette

What we talk about when we talk about recipes

September 28, 2012

When I was in high school, etiquette was supposedly falling out of favor. In my social circle, people made fun of fussybutts who p’d and q’d all over the place. We drank tea out of chipped mugs, unconcerned with serving plans, saucers, or the properly extended pinky. Cotillion this, we taunted the old and nosy.

Many years later, still drinking tea out of chipped mugs but reading a little more Levi-Strauss, I learned that even if you don’t like the word “etiquette,” you probably still follow one. Etiquette transcends even the most doggedly rebellious adolescent’s desire to live free of hypocrisy and status-seeking; it slops into the saucer of everyday life and colors a wide range of social interactions.

I was reminded of this as I sat with a group of food writers recently. In between discussions of children who put pebbles in their mouths and the best way to make pesto, we got onto the topic of recipes, specifically how people react when asked for them. A few of the writers laughed and said that they hated fielding requests for recipes.

“If you want to eat this food, then you need to be with me,” one woman passionately declared. “A food experience cannot be reduced to the ingredients called for in a dish.”

Heads nodded vigorously. I sat dumbfounded.

Do you share recipes?

Another writer divulged that she gives out recipes with key ingredients left out. To me, that seemed kind of naughty.

These home cooks apparently feel protective when it comes to their signature recipes. Part of what bothers them is the notion that a mere pantomiming of their act of cooking will yield similarly sumptuous results. Recipe requests are like autograph requests: pointless and fetishistic.

I am enough of a tyro in the kitchen never to have considered any of this. If anyone asks me for a recipe, I feel flattered. When I ask, it’s out of admiration and, perhaps, a raw desire to eat this lovely food again.

Because, however, I had taken a liking to these writers, I attempted to see the problem from their side. Then I tried to think through the larger issue of recipe-exchange etiquette. Are there culturally specified rules regarding the exchange of recipes, cook to cook? How do those rules vary across time and space?

What are we asking for when we ask for a recipe?

The recipe saboteurs — what else can you call a person who pulls the spark plugs on a recipe? — justified their habits by emphasizing how emotionally and aesthetically bound up with the foods they prepared they were. When a diner asked for a recipe, that person was ignoring the urgency and improvisation of cooking by assuming that a dining experience could be reduced to a mere 200 words on a three-by-five card.

The saboteurs also said that they cherished the connections they made through their cooking. They did not want to be middlemen getting cut out of the action. In this sense, cooks seem to need forms and practices that elevate them and their work. The low social status of all but the highest-class cook feeds ambivalence about thoughtless or casual requests for information.

During our conversation, a writer likened cooking skills to money. Just as you would not give your money away casually, you should not let your recipes too far out of your sight. This was all new to me. And it was fascinating.

This is a big subject. I am just at the point where I will think twice before I request a recipe. I won’t assume that the cook whose table I have slobbered on feels exactly as I do about the whole recipe-exchange concept. And I have formulated a long list of questions that will help me understand 21st-century cooking etiquette.

I’m wondering now what kinds of social rules govern washing dishes when you dine at a friend’s house, how involved cooks really want their guests to get in the kitchen, what kinds of host or hostess gifts seem like veiled criticisms, how asking for seconds and thirds is received, how to handle refusing foods due to allergies, and other types of health-related food restrictions.

My list goes on.

What do you think? Is it time for a food-centric etiquette guide? A Miss Oven Mitts’ Guide to Kitchen Civility? Is the next great anthropological revolution going to require a person camped in your kitchen taking notes as you season your stew?

I guess I am just impertinent enough to ask.

There are 26 comments on this item
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1. by Lisa on Sep 29, 2012 at 7:39 AM PDT

Thank you for this thoughtful post. I feel as you do, flattered and happy to share the details of any dish that has turned out delicious. To me food is a foundation of life and if you enjoy what you’re eating, then life is very good why not share the happiness!

2. by maxie on Sep 29, 2012 at 8:34 AM PDT

What is so silly about not wanting to give out recipes, or leaving out a key ingredient, is a) no two cooks produce exactly the same dish, and b) an intuitive cook doesn’t need your recipe to duplicate the dish.

I’ve only known one person who would leave something out when giving a recipe. She also would become irate if you changed anything, such as adding mushrooms to it. Stupid, imnsho of course.

3. by vintagejenta on Sep 30, 2012 at 1:30 PM PDT

I happily give away recipes. Of course, often the “recipe” is more of a loose set of parameters, rather than detailed instructions. Especially since many of my dinner dishes (as opposed to baking) are done on the fly with things I have on hand. I think this is why I may never get a cookbook done - recipe testing is not something I enjoy doing!

People who leave things out intentionally are just being jerks. If you don’t want someone to “steal” your precious recipe, don’t give it out! Claim it is an old family secret or something if you want to be polite about it. Otherwise, share freely. After all, I’m sure your “secret” dish started out as someone else’s recipe!

4. by Amanda on Oct 1, 2012 at 7:43 AM PDT

Only once have I considered leaving out an ingredient in a recipe. The woman who requested it was a b*tchy troll of a woman who I hated. I coulnd’t bear to give her “my” recipe (which wasn’t even anything special....Harvey Wallbanger cake that starts with a boxed mix). I believe I ultimately just “forgot” to give her the recipe at all.

5. by Caroline Cummins on Oct 1, 2012 at 9:53 AM PDT

I wonder if the cooks who won’t share their recipes, or leave out key ingredients, are expressing a fundamental lack of cooking confidence? It suggests a belief in recipes as magic bullets, instead of as tools and guidelines. Frankly, whenever anyone asks me for a recipe, I’m thrilled to share it with them — and to offer streamlining tips, too. The more kitchen empowerment, the better.

6. by joanmenefee on Oct 1, 2012 at 10:39 AM PDT

Of course, Amanda! Recipe giving emotions and actions depend on context. We learn about our relationships through unusual stresses on them. (It’s kind of like figuring out who you feel comfortable asking for a ride to the airport.) This means that we sometimes cook for people we dislike. Also interesting.

I am now wondering what I would do if someone I disliked asked me for a recipe. I might also demure. Or what if my boss did (can’t imagine that but. . . )?
Cooking and Power, 101.

7. by anonymous on Oct 3, 2012 at 7:05 AM PDT

I suddenly remembered a funny story about my grandma. There was this chocolate cake that my mom had told me about. Grandma was the only one who could make it. A number of her kids had tried to make it while growing up, but it always came out badly.

When I was 20 or so, Grandma gave me her old, handwritten/typed recipe book (an old address book she’d repurposed...a little black book!) and I found the recipe. I set to make it one day. As I was preparing, I got out all the typicial chocolate cake ingredients: flour, sugar, cocoa, salt, vanilla, etc... As I followed the recipe, though, I realized at the end that I had the vanilla out, but hadn’t used it. Wasn’t called for in the recipe. I thought it was odd, so I just dumped in a teaspoon, because I felt it should be there. My mom was shocked when she tried the cake: I was the first one to make it well, other than grandma. It had to have been the vanilla that I added.

We assume that grandma did not leave the vanilla out deliberately. She probably just forgot it when she was typing up, but when she made the cake, instinctively knew it went in. But it still makes for a funny story!

8. by dgreenwood on Oct 3, 2012 at 2:28 PM PDT

I am always happy to share recipes - very few are terribly original anyway as I troll many blogs and sites collecting them, and of course rely on a bunch of published books as well. I also share streamlining tips and variations. But I am not a professional recipe creator. I can understand the hesitation if one were trying to sell a cookbook (although giving out a recipe or two would be good publicity I’d think.) Only in the case of it taking away from potential income does it seem remotely reasonable to deny a recipe. As for leaving things out...bah! Get out of the sandbox!

9. by Sarah Gannholm on Oct 3, 2012 at 2:42 PM PDT

Not sharing the recipe - it seems petty and childish! I always share and add comments about where to source ingredients or how hot the stove should be - to make sure it comes out exactly as they remember it. I know when I make a recipe from my grandmother or a good friend, it’s almost like they’re right there - I have that memory of the moment like a gift. Not sharing a recipe seems to deny community and culture. Especially when fewer and fewer people are doing any real cooking.

10. by anonymous on Oct 3, 2012 at 3:17 PM PDT

Giving someone a recipe with ingredients left out is the mark of a small, cowardly person. Either say no or give it away with everything correct. I find the very idea horrendous.

For me, recipes from friends are deep connections that extend beyond life itself. Two of my most cherished recipes are from people I loved dearly and who have died; what better legacy could you leave? Whenever I want to feel closer to them, I make the recipe; it’s like a conversation that never ends. Bless them for passing it along.

I have another recipe given to me on the sly by a friend. She got it from a mutual friend, who was willing to give it to her, but not anyone else. I’m happy to have the recipe; I do remember him fondly when I make it, despite his snobbishness. What has it taken away from him, for me to make it once in awhile?

With the exception of a chef or restaurant owner who has a particular recipe on their menu, and therefore makes a living with it, I would not want to be friends with anyone who’s so stingy they won’t give me a recipe. Grow up, people!

11. by Cat McKenzie on Oct 3, 2012 at 3:25 PM PDT

In this day where cooking is not always taught at Mom or Grandma’s side it seems somewhat stingy not to share at least the parameters of a recipe that a guest or friend enjoys and requests. How else will the community of cooks and the tradition of cooking be preserved? As for leaving out ingredients so the results will be dreadful that is just plain mean.
If you are planning to write a cookbook or guarding a secret family recipe, then by all means state that up front and avoid any awkwardness.
I agree we may need a new kitchen etiquette bible!

12. by karen tsang on Oct 3, 2012 at 3:59 PM PDT

I feel heartened by reading the comments below this story, it means I am with like minds as I read Culinate. And to be honest, I felt sad and sickened as I read the story itself. I really hope that the people who you sat with, the ones who hold their recipes like poker cards to their chest, read both it and the comments.

My mother and I both possessed a recipe for her signature ginger pear jam, given to us by my paternal grandmother. My mother’s recipe card was missing an ingredient, and as we made the jam, we struggled over which card was correct.

Did she leave the ingredient out by accident, or to trip my mother up? We never knew ... she was someone who cooked by “feel”, so it is likely. But because of what I knew of their relationship, I was always left to wonder. It really took the shine off of what was once a favourite treat at grandma’s house.

Were I to know someone who knowingly gave me or anyone inaccurate details of a recipe as requested, rather than give the “family secret” response, I would likely not dine at their place, as my stomach would be in knots at the thought of their lack of generosity. Their “etiquette” is flawed, in my opinion, unless honestly is no longer the best policy.

13. by Alison Santighian on Oct 3, 2012 at 5:03 PM PDT

If anyone ever is gracious enough to ask for a recipe, I’ll happily share it (and any advice given me by the original-ish cook, if I have any).

Sometimes my thoughts about “recipes” (i.e loosely worded guidance) my MIL gives me are similar to Karen’s thoughts about her grandmother. I’m never quite sure if my MIL wants me to provide her son with the meals he grew up with or if she wants me to not get them “right.”

14. by anonymous on Oct 3, 2012 at 7:08 PM PDT

“.guarding a secret family recipe...”
This reminded me of something that occurred many years ago and puzzled me at the time. A new friend raved on and on about the salad dressing I’d served and asked for the recipe. Because it was nothing but mayonnaise, black pepper and water, my standard response before giving it was “it’s an old family secret.” I was surprised that she immediately apologized for asking. It was my first experience with recipe withholding.

15. by Marilyn on Oct 4, 2012 at 10:09 AM PDT

I am a former restaurant owner and chef, I have always been glad to share my recipes. However, this has not always turned out well. I would never, never, leave and ingredient out or change the instructions to confuse the user. I do assume that the user will have a certain level of cooking skill. It’s a little uncomfortable to ask the person requesting the recipe if they actually have skill.
This says it all - I served a Basil Chicken Salad at an event & the recipe was requested by a friend. He later reported that it did not turn out the way mine did & actually accused me of leaving ingredients out. He said"do you think it made a difference that I used canned mushrooms instead of fresh and dried basil instead of fresh?” Hmmmmmm

16. by joanmenefee on Oct 5, 2012 at 10:30 AM PDT

What an interesting bunch of analyses and observations. I had known yet not really appreciated how dishes preserve relationships and memories; so many of your stories get at that truth. I do want to make sure that we keep sight of the big picture. Judgments of an individual cook’s choice aside, we cannot deny the complex ways in which a cook’s capacity to wow a group with her kitchen skills dove-tails with her social identity in general. Secure or insecure, nice or not-so-nice; skilled, unskilled, or deskilled, we all are constantly being read by others when we present food. If we are to preserve some sense of harmony and kindness--of sisterhood, brotherhood, and family-- we need to explore our divisive impulses.

As I have said before, cooking doesn’t necessarily contribute positively to our existence, but I think it can and should. Culinate is doing wonderful work to promote my ideal cooking world.

17. by joanmenefee on Oct 5, 2012 at 7:20 PM PDT

I forgot that Nigel Slater’s Toast features dramatic recipe withholding-- Slater competes with his step-mother for his father’s heart.:

18. by EvaToad on Oct 8, 2012 at 11:35 AM PDT

Marilyn, your comment is spot-on, as are the others above. When I share recipes, it tends to be with close friends (with whom I have a food relationship and I know something about their skills and tastes in the kitchen). Since most of my “recipes” are someone else’s base, plus my.. ahem..intuition, the ones I share tend to be hilariously long-winded annotations of a base recipe.

But sharing a recipe with someone you don’t know very well in the kitchen can be tough. I still am always willing, but I fear I can be somewhat condescending when I do: overly specific about ingredients and method.

While I sometimes have a brief impulse to jealously guard my recipe, it’s not what wins out. The idea that, once shared, a recipe will sever ties with another person is odd to me -- a very transactional way of relating to others! “If you want to eat this food, then you need to be with me.” What makes you think the person wouldn’t want to be with you to eat your food? If you truly think that, ok, maybe don’t give it out (e.g., a restaurateur who is afraid a customer won’t come back once s/he can make the dish at home). Otherwise, it has always been my experience that sharing a recipe deepened and strengthened my bond with a fellow food-lover.

19. by EvaToad on Oct 8, 2012 at 11:40 AM PDT

Also, I often learn new things about a dish whose recipe I’ve given to others. Fellow cooks/bakers tend to tweak recipes or try suggestions I include in my annotations, and I love hearing about how friends have fared, then trying it again. It can be such an enriching experience!

20. by karen tsang on Oct 8, 2012 at 12:57 PM PDT

I’ve been meaning to come back all week, especially since you, Joan, brought everything together. I don’t really have (outside) experience with recipe withholding, which is probably why I had such a strong reaction. I think (hope?) we cultivate friendships that reflect what we value, so I don’t think any of my friends would not share a recipe with me.

Lucky for me, my mother-in-law (with whom I have an uneasy relationship) and I are very different people, and there is no where she’d rather not be than the kitchen. My husband is Chinese Canadian and, as a kid, he dreamed of testing out the foods who’s scents wafted out of the houses on his walks home from school.

Meatloaf, tuna casserole, quiche, these are all dishes that he salivates over, even 20 years after we first met. But when he wants comfort food, I can easily make the dishes he grew up eating, or we can pop by his parents if he prefers. I don’t care to cook like her, so I don’t feel the competition. Still, Alison, based on my mother’s relationship with my paternal grandmother, I feel your pain ...

Growing up, we had a “secret family recipe” for chocolate chip cookies. My sisters and I still used it for our families pretty much until solid shortening became a “bad-for-us” ingredient: it was the recipe on the back of the “Chipits” package. My sister recently revealed it to her 20 year old son who has taken a liking to making his own goodies. His shock was the same one I showed when I found out, and my friends show when I reveal it to them.

Thank you again for Culinate, and your contributions to it. I enjoy reading the articles and the ensuing conversations very much.

21. by ruth_117 on Oct 11, 2012 at 8:03 AM PDT

As the majority of my recipes at least are concived of through others I am completely willing to share with anyone and everyone. When other have been so generous as to give me recipes, why would I be stingy with them? Still sometimes there is just not a way to write some recipes that would allow new cooks / bakers to duplicate them. This is especially true with family recipes. Almost all of the daughters-in-law of my husbands grandmother accuse her of not giving out the best recipes. I found an easy way around that was to go and bake and cook with her for the afternoon. As we went along I could write down the recipes and learn all the techniques that were missing from my aunt-in-laws papers. My husband now says that I can successfully duplicate her buns, soup, and perogies. This is espcially good as she is now not cooking as much as she used to and so I can bring her some favorites that she cannot make anymore!

22. by Deb on Oct 27, 2012 at 2:01 AM PDT

I enjoyed the wonderful cooking skills of my favorite niece’s new sis-n-law at Thanksgiving last year. I asked for one of the recipes. I was told which website it came from and went to check it out. There were at least 23 recipes that might have been the one she had followed. I haven’t yet felt like being a ‘recipe tester’ so I haven’t tried any of them.

Do I think she was being secretive? No, I think she probably didn’t know which recipe she followed. She read through the list until she found one she had all the ingredients for, followed it, closed her laptop and promptly forgot. Sadly though, even she can’t bring the same dish this year. ;<

I have a favorite restaurant. For years I would order one special menu item. One day as I was flipping through a new cookbook, I found a recipe with the same name. With a little tweaking, I cooked a dish that would rival the one I had bought for years. Now I surprise my favorite waitress by ordering something different every time I am there. It’s still my favorite restaurant!

I have had friends(?) who have consiously or not left ingredients out of a recipe. It irritates me so much I decided to always be careful and double check before I hand one out, and I also like to say that this is the basic recipe and these are my changes. My friends are happy and most often tell me how well it turned out and what, if any, changes they made. We all win!

I read several foodie blogs. The accuracy of the recipes given and the style that keeps me reading will weigh heavily on whether or not I add their cookbook to my overloaded shelves.

I feel many recipes are merely guidelines - a starting place for a main ingredient. I have watched a bunch of pots of spagetti sauce (all made with the same recipe) get mixed together so everyone at the feed would get the same sauce. The pots of sauce that came in were all different.

I love Ruth’s idea of cooking alongside someone to learn the little tricks that don’t make it into written form.

23. by anonymous on Nov 23, 2012 at 1:26 AM PST

I’m really glad there’s no “etiquette” guide on this topic - or those at the end of your post! People just need to let their yes be yes (I’d LOVE to share my recipe!) or their no be no (Sorry, but it’s a secret!) instead of being offended every time someone speaks to them.

Being too easily offended is not something an etiquette guide can fix, unfortunately.

24. by anonymous on Feb 22, 2013 at 2:43 PM PST

I really need some advice. My mother, sister and I are starting a blog. It’s going to be about a lot of things, but mainly cooking and tips. We all have great recipes but my mother and sister don’t want our recipes out there. But my thing is...what the hell are we gonna do then? I don’t want to make someone else’s stuff. I know people share their recipes online and everything, but my mom and sister are saying we shouldn’t do that until we become succesful. What do we do?

25. by anonymous on Mar 24, 2013 at 6:55 PM PDT

I found this all interesting. I think there are some recipes I wouldn’t hesitate to give out because they are good, but maybe not special to me in any way. There are some that are from the family and are so dear and bring back special memories I feel a sense of great love to make and share the food. I would only give them to a very dear friend that would treasure it like me. I think it would take away from it, if you gave it away randomly and someone put there name on it and it was posted a million times on the internet. That’s just me. I also think some recipes I would like to pass on as a special gift for my children.

26. by joanmenefee on Apr 23, 2013 at 4:06 PM PDT

Sorry I didn’t see this follow-on anonymous. I am afraid your question goes beyond my experience, because I do not write recipes. However, other Culinate regulars surely can offer advice. Intellectual property is in freefall right now. I don’t know how you can protect your original recipes if you are interested in developing an audience online. If you feel you co-own the recipes with the rest of your family, then my opinion is that you have to respect their wishes. But again that’s just a personal opinion. My understanding has long been that if you share any information on-line, you understand you are freeing it to be copied and distributed infinitely. Others’ opinions?

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