The Thymes They Are A-Changing: A Few Thoughts on Recipes

A few months ago, I had a Girls’ Night Out with my friends. Digression: for us, “Girls’ Night Out” means three things: wine, food, and pants with elastic waistbands. While not actually going out.

In other words, it’s pretty much this:








On this particular night, we went to my friend Inga’s house and she made dinner, a delicious peanut squash soup. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. This soup was everything: a little sweet, a little spicy, just the right consistency to be a comfort food. I asked if I could have the recipe, and Inga said, “Oh, it’s easy to find. Just Google peanut squash soup and it’s the first recipe that pops up.”

(Note: I did, and it was, and here’s the result. TRY IT. You won’t be disappointed.)

I remembered this exchange a few days ago because I was thinking about the ways recipes have adapted and changed over time. I sometimes write posts for the historical blog The Recipes Project, and even a brief perusal of that site shows that old recipes are both surprisingly familiar (quantities, instructions) and shockingly different (recipes for pimple creams and breast cancer cures can be found near recipes for preserving quinces).

That exchange at Inga’s house highlighted that as much as recipes have changed over time, it’s possible that–with the ease of finding things on the internet–the recipe genre may be having its most radical transformation yet.

Not so long ago, if somebody asked you for a recipe, it could feel like an imposition. You’d have  to get an index card and painstakingly handwrite the recipe, making sure it fit on the card, that the measurements were correct (I’ll never forget the time I wrote down 2 TBSP of cayenne instead of 2 tsp), that you hadn’t forgotten any steps.

In short, it was kind of a pain in the ass. But the labor involved meant the recipe itself was a thoughtful and time-consuming gift.

With that gift came individuality. In early modern recipes, that took the form of instructions like “take the amount of rosemary that would fit on a two-pence piece.” And everyone’s heard stories of trying to recreate Aunt So-and-So’s pie or chicken or tamales but never quite getting it right because her ingredients involved “smidges” and “dollops” and “handfuls.”

(My own favorite quirky recipe is from my Grandma Sherman, whose fudge recipe calls for “5 cents worth of Woolworth chocolate.”)

Now, not only can we Google a recipe, we can sort by ingredients, cost, user rating, regional origin…the list goes on. Then, when you locate just the right recipe, you can pin it to your Pinterest board and download it to your phone, which has an app to find a coupon for the ingredients you need. And the quirkiness of those recipes have gone the way of the “update” button on the blog.

Perhaps because it has become so easy to find what you want with so little effort, online recipes themselves have become more personalized and narrative-driven. Some blogs are as much about the voice of the writer as they are about the quality of the recipes. This recipe for “Drunken Chicken Marsala,” for example, reads as though it wasn’t just the chicken that got a little tipsy. And this recipe for masala sauce: can we agree that calling a masala sauce “life-changing” is a wee bit hyperbolic?

Anyway, I’m not trying to be overly nostalgic and romanticize the past. I love the ease of internet browsing as much as the next person. But I do sometimes miss the old recipe box: the serendipity of finding some funny old recipe, that softness at the very edge of the cards that comes from years of thumbing, the memories that come rushing back with the sight of a beloved relative’s handwriting.

So, like the rest of you all, I’ll keep toggling back and forth between the new and the old, Google and the cookbook, the search function and the weathered old index card. And as I say a prayer of thanks to the patron saint of the internet (who IS that by the way?) for making it easy to find instructions for pie crust, I’ll also keep my flour-dusted recipe box near at hand.


  1. boxwoodbooks says:

    St Hubert of course

  2. Pam Arbogast says:

    I have a HUGE storage of saved internet recipes ( I use Pearltrees, not Pinterest) with multiple sort categories (I Tried I Liked it, I Invented This, Vegan, Vegetarian, Low Fat. Too Good To Worry About Meat or Fat…), and still, what I most appreciate, and don’t pay enough attention to, are my handwritten notes about success or failure (or adaptations) in my equally large cookbook collection, and my mom’s painstakingly gathered collection of family favorites.

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