And the fascinating history of its evolution into a modern-day recipe.

What’s in a recipe? There are the ingredients, of course, and the method, too. For most modern humans, this is common knowledge, but there was a time, not that long ago, when that six-letter word that rules our kitchens was something quite different–and, at one point, not even a word at all.

It’s one of our favorite etymological evolutions: as many a great-grandparent can still tell you, before there were recipes, there were, what we then called, receipts.

Today, we think of the former as what we use to make our favorite casseroles and cornbreads and chocolate-chip cookies, while the latter brings to mind that too-long piece of paper that we shove into our pockets at check-out.

But this has not always been the case.

According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, both words derive from recipere, or the Latin verb meaning “to receive or take.” Receipt is technically the older word, dating at least back to the 1300s, when it appeared in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in reference to a medicinal preparation. Similarly, though some few hundred years later, the first known use of recipe would also appear in place of what we now call a prescription—eventually abbreviated to the present-day “Rx” as seen on a doctor’s notepad.

By the 16th century, the concept of a receipt had expanded to mean any sort of “statement documenting the receiving of money or goods,” per Webster—be it for painkillers or a pound of butter or a mule—and by the 17th, though the details seem lost to history, both terms began being used to describe the instructions for cooking food.

By the late 19th century, however, changes were afoot, perhaps set in stone by the 1896 The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, in which domestic scientist Fannie Merritt Farmer referred to her seminal tome’s contents as “tried and tested recipes.” (More on Ms. Farmer later.)

Still, receipts remained in vogue into the middle of the 20th century, but they would eventually drift into obsolescence—an adage of the past, carried on only thanks to those elder relatives who passed the term, and undoubtedly the recipes, down to their kin.

Receipt has a more distinguished ancestry,” wrote Baltimore-born socialite Emily Post in her 1922 Etiquette, “but since recipe is used by all modern writers on cooking, only the immutables insist on receipt.” 

Indeed, recipes would come to be the term used in Irma Rombauer’s original 1931 Joy of Cooking, in Julia Child’s pivotal 1961 Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in the many essays and books written between the 1940s and 1970s by pioneering American food writer M.F.K. Fisher. And the rest should be history.

Except for the fact that, all the while, the actual anatomy of a recipe—which we shall call it from hence forth—was undergoing a revolution of its own.

Today, whether you’re reading a cookbook on Southern food or California cooking or Native American or Korean or Kenyan cuisine, recipes, more often than not (we see you, Sam Sifton’s No-Recipe Recipes), appear in an almost identical format. As said before, there are the ingredients, and the method, and usually, the number of people this dish will serve. They are chronologically ordered and clearly detailed so as to be easily replicated.

“A recipe is supposed to be a formula, a means prescribed for producing a desired result, whether that be an atomic weapon, a well-trained Pekingese, or an omelet,” wrote M.F.K. Fisher in her 1969 “The Anatomy of a Recipe.” “There can be no frills about it, no ambiguities, and above all, no ‘little secrets.’ A cook who indulges in such covert and destructive vanity . . .  no deep-fat kettle is too hot to brown him in.”

But again, this has not always been the case.

The earliest known recipes were inscribed on tablets from Mesopotamia, with others found from ancient Egypt, China, and Greece, but back then, and for most of the millennia thereafter, much of society was illiterate, meaning they didn’t tend to write such things down. Instead, cooking knowledge was more commonly picked up through experience, passed down among generations, or only shared between fellow cooks—many of whom, for the better part of the last few centuries, were women.

As literacy emerged during the Age of Enlightenment, so, too, did the precursors of our modern-day recipes, then largely consisting of just a few sentences based on general approximations—“a dash of this,” “a dollop of that”—and basic assumptions—“a hot oven,” “cook until done”—of the hard-earned culinary wisdom of those aforementioned cooks.

See the circa-1814 recipe for fried squirrel from our state’s beloved Maryland’s Way: “Prepare and cut up in pieces as you would a rabbit. Dredge in flour well-seasoned with salt and pepper. Brown in bacon fat. Add a little water, cover and steam for an hour or more until tender.”

In short, for quite some time, recipes were vague, imprecise, and based on a since-forgotten rule of thumb. That is until the Industrial Revolution, which brought forth an era of standardization of weights and measurements that would ultimately revolutionize the way we cooked—and ate.  

With the help of such new tools as measuring cups, spoons, thermometers, and clocks, combined with pioneering women like early feminist educator Catharine Beecher and the aforementioned Farmer—arguably the mother of the modern-day recipe format—recipes soon became more methodical, scientific, and therefore reliable. Ingredients were now listed in tablespoons, cups, quarts, and other numbers. Method was now explained with specific detail and guided instruction.

“[Miss Farmer] was the kiss of death, one would assume, to such sloppy recipe writing as kept on being published for brides like my maternal grandmother, who’s copy of Marion Harlan‘s best-selling manual, Common Sense in the Household, first published in 1871, is inscribed by an older brother: ‘Improve each shining hour,’” mused Fisher in ’69.

She’s referring to the fact that in the years leading up to the Farmer cookbook, American recipes were largely written for middle- and upper-class housewives, most of whom were white and many of whom, following the Civil War, no longer with a kitchen full of help.

But American society was also beginning to grow increasingly mobile, with the Western expansion luring settlers toward the frontier, the Great Migration relocating African Americans across the country from the deep South, and the eventual World War efforts drawing rural populations to burgeoning cities. Written recipes became a way to preserve personal history.

Along the way, thousands of cooks were born, with their recipes continuing to evolve—with us—to this day.

In a section titled “Some Words of Advice” in the foreword of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Child, along with her co-writers Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, offer some recommendations that still ring true: read the recipe first, pay attention, take your time, pre-heat your oven, dirty every pot and pan you need, use your hands…

“Keep your knives sharp,” they conclude, before adding: “Above all, have a good time.”

September 30, 2022 — Dennis Powell