The Instructional Design of Recipes, by way of The Hand of Glory (part one)

A week or so back my friend Richard Kadrey posted this image to his Instagram:

Family fun for the holidays: how to make a Hand of Glory.

A photo posted by Richard Kadrey (@rkadrey) on

I grew up reading ghost stories and listening to cassette tapes of 1940’s horror radio shows (in the dark, under the covers), so I’m well-acquainted with what a hand of glory is (the mummified hand of a hanged man), and what it does (varies; supposedly it can open locked doors, or paralyze people to which it is presented so you can rob or murder them).

Because I make a living writing instructions, however, this hand of glory “recipe” has one particular problem that stood out for me: the first half talks about acquiring and preparing the hand of a hanged man. But then some amount of time later (15 days plus additional drying time), you’re also supposed to make a candle “using grease from the hanged man.”

Right. Does that need to be the grease of the same hanged man as the original owner of the hand? Surely the writer of this recipe could have told you up front that when you go to the gibbet in the crossroads at midnight during the full moon to cut the hand off the dead guy, you also need to collect some grease as well while you’re there (ew)? And even if it’s OK for the grease to be the grease of any old hanged man, it’s not like you can just take the horse and buggy down to the 17th century Occult Costco to pick up a half-pound of man grease.

Now before y’all jump up and “well, actually…” at me, I am well aware that this photo is likely from an encyclopedia of some sort, and not really a “recipe” at all. And I was going to end this blog post right here at half a page and get on with my life. (We would all likely have been better off.)

But then I started to think about recipe writing and structure in general, and how the format of recipes has evolved over time, and then I vanished into a multi-day recipe history research hole from which I have only just now emerged.

My weirdly all-consuming single-minded obsessive behavior is your gain.

The Narrative of Ye Olde Tyme Recipes

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The kind of unstructured, stream-of-consciousness, all-in-one-paragraph structure that the Hand of Glory recipe uses was very common in older cookbooks and recipes, going back to ancient times. Googling “ancient recipes” turned up a lot of these, including a terrific site called Gode Cookery that specializes in Medieval recipes.

I like this one from 1545 for Apple pie. It’s not really an American pie the way we think about it, with a crust on the bottom and sometimes the top. The pie crust from this recipe sounds more like a paste in the bottom of a pan (a “coffin,” here which I suppose is in keeping with the theme of weird dead things in this post):

To make pies of grene apples.

Take your apples and pare them cleane and core theim as ye will a Quince / then make your coffyne after this maner / take a little faire water and halfe a disshe of butter and a little safron and set all this vpon a chafyngdisshe till it be hote / then temper your flower with this vpon a chafyngdissh till it be hote then temper your floure with this said licour and the white of two egges / and also make your coffyn and ceason your apples with Sinamon / ginger and suger inough. Then put them into your coffyn and laie halfe a disshe of butter aboue them / and close your coffyn and so bake them.

Here is a
17th century recipe for sack (sherry) posset, which is kind of like eggnog:

A Sack Posset.

Take three pints of Cream; boil in it a Little Cinnamon, a Nutmeg quartered, and two spoonfuls of grated bread; then beat the yolks of twelve eggs very well with a little cold Cream, and a spoonful of Sack. When your Cream hath boiled about a quarter of an hour, thicken it up with the Eggs, and sweeten it with Sugar; and take half a pint of Sack and six spoonfuls of Ale, and put into the basin or dish, you intend to make it in, with a little Ambergreece, if you please. Then pour your Cream and Eggs into it, holding your hand as high as conveniently you can, gently stirring in the basin with the spoon as you pour it; so serve it up. If you please you may strew Sugar upon it. You may strew Amberedsugar upon it, as you eat it; or Sugar-beaten with Cinnamon, if you like it.”

Note to self: This actually doesn’t look half bad, except for the “ambergreece” (ambergris), which is “a solid, waxy, flammable substance … produced in the digestive system of sperm whales.” *yuck face*

I also found this terrific poem, attributed to Virgil, that includes an ancient Roman recipe for an extremely garlicky pesto (“moretum”).

Then singly each o’ th’ garlic heads be strips
From knotty body, and of outer coats
Deprives them, these rejected doth he throw
Away and strews at random on the ground.
The bulb preserved from th’ plant in water doth
He rinse, and throw it into th’ hollow stone.
On these he sprinkles grains of salt, and cheese
Is added, hard from taking up the salt.

Interlude #1: The Cockentrice

While I was googling ancient recipes I stumbled upon this 15th century dish called the Cockentrice. The word cockentrice is a pun on the mythical cockatrice, a dragon with a rooster’s head, that can kill you if it looks at you.

The cockentrice is a sort of horrific medieval turducken where you sew the front half of a suckling pig to the rear half of a capon (big chicken, usually a neutered rooster), do the same with the other halves, stuff it, and roast it. Very fashionable holiday dining for the Tudors, apparently.

I can’t find a legally usable photo of this nightmare to post here, but this article from the Huffington Post has photos: Cockentrice: The Most Deliciously Terrifying Thanksgiving Meal EVER

Structure and Audience for a Narrative Recipe

All of these narrative-style recipes are, at best, hard to follow. Most of them suffer from the Hand of Glory problem, where the ingredients are buried deeply within the text. The ingredient amounts, cooking times, and cooking temperatures are vague or missing altogether. Just how much is a “little” ambergris? (Any amount of ambergris is possibly too much?) The actual instructions for how to cook a dish may be out of order, contain shorthand (“make a marrow stock”) or include digressions on the best ingredients right in the middle.

I am neither a historian nor a linguist, but the conclusion I draw from all these recipes is that the audience is a very experienced cook with a well-stocked pantry, who does not need step-by-step instructions or a lot of detail on how to cook things. I can’t imagine any of these recipes laid out on the table next to the fire as the meal is cooking. The goal of these recipes, then, is to communicate the broad strokes of a dish so that other readers and other cooks with a similar background can benefit from that knowledge.

(too long; more in part 2)