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


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)

more actual fiction occurs

(update: arrrgghhh, never write a blog post in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep. I have fixed the name of the story and the link so it should work now.)

I’ve posted a new story over on the main site, called Bas Floyd 166ae0. This is another extreme geek story with a soft of Lovecraft influence. I wrote this story earlier this year and tried half-heartedly to get it published, which didn’t work, and then I lost patience. Either I write too geeky or I’m a crappy writer and I don’t realize it, but anyhow, there it is.

I know I’ve essentially abandoned this blog, and I’m sorry. (guilty expression.) I’m at that stage where I decide it’s time for an entire web site overhaul, both design and infrastructure, because surely that will help.

I am also almost done with the neverending chicken coop.

in which actual fiction occurs

I’ve posted a new short story over on my main site.  It’s called The Deadline, and it’s a sort of dotcom horror thing.  This is actually a new/old story:  I started writing it in 1999 and never finished it. I recently dug it up again and realized it wasn’t that bad, although it’s kind of dated.  I finished it and updated some of the more obvious anachronisms but it still has a strong 1999 feel.

I also finally got around to updating the design of my main site and putting everything back into content management.  The one advantage of rebuilding wordpress a couple of times is that I’ve become very good at it.  (wan smile)

the true story of the emu press

A long time ago here I posted about the manual for the MN-156 Reciprocating Emu Press, which was mysteriously stored on Amazon’s media servers. I ended that post wondering what the real story was behind this amusing parady of a user manual.

A while ago mad_eponine, the author of the Reciprocating Emu Press manual, sent me email pointing me to this livejournal post with the real story, including how it ended up at Amazon. It is brilliant. I am happy to have played a small role in the saga.

what a cool job

I’m not currently looking for tech writing work, but I keep my eye on the job listings just to see what kind of jobs are out there. And this posting just appeared out on craigslist:

Technical Publications Manager – Automotive

Tesla Motors is currently seeking a Technical Publications Manager for our After Sales Operations division (ASO).

The Technical Publications Manager is responsible for the creation, printing and distribution of all external technical documentation associated with Tesla cars. These include but are not limited to: Owners Manual, Service Manual, Flat Rate Manual, Parts Manual, Circuit Diagrams, and Technical Bulletins.

Tesla Motors is the company here in the bay area that is making high performance electric cars. Their first car is mighty darn pretty.


Writing manuals for an electric car would certainly be way more hella fun than writing the same old API documentation (setCommandOperation: set the operation for the command. zzzzz). Unfortunately, this is a job for a tech pubs manager. As a manager you get to make sure other people have all the fun while reserving the pain for yourself. I suck very badly at that.

Perhaps the future Tesla tech pubs manager will need a tech writer contractor. Hint hint.

na.*mo: launching day, now with headache and nausea

It is November 1, and thus marks the annual outpouring of hopeful creativity on the internets.

November is, of course, the National Novel Writer’s Month, aka NaNoWriMo, now in its seventh year, where one attempts to write 50,000 words in a month. It is joined this year by the (to me, seemingly) much easier NaBloPoMo, where one attempts to blog at least once a day for the entire month.

I’ve posted about my NaNoWriMo failures in the past, so I am going to decline to comment about whether I am doing a novel this month or not. Don’t ask me. I won’t tell you. (gazing elsewhere).

NaBloPoMo, National Blog Posting Month, is kind of a dumb name (OK, its no dumber than NaNoWriMo I suppose), and that shouldn’t be so hard. Its not like one has to come up with incisive analysis in 1000 words every single day. Just one post.

For the sake of completeness a quick googling shows that there is also:

  • NaNoFiMo: National Novel Finishing Month. Yeah. The finishing, that’s the trick.
  • NaNoWriYe: National Novel Writing Year. For those with deadline issues.
  • NaNoEdMo: National Novel Editing Month. Most boring month ever, March is a good choice.
  • NanoMangO: National Fruit Eating Month. I kid. One of a number of short-term comics-drawing events. (see also Scott McCloud’s 24 hour comic book).
  • NaDruWriNi: National Drunk Writing Night. Why make it an annual event? Every night can be national drunk writing night!

I was feeling all creative yesterday about the start of November, all set to start with a whole month of blogging and perhaps-novelling-or-perhaps-not-no-comment, and then last night I got some sort of food poisoning. (before you make the obvious assumption, no I did NOT eat all the halloween candy. we didn’t have any halloween candy. it’s a quarter mile up an unlit road to my house. the only trick or treaters we get are meth lab operators and serial killers). I don’t know what it was precisely I ate, but still: ugh.

So anyhow, yesterday I was abrim with creative juices, but during the night I threw all of them up. This morning I am here on the couch watching teh netflix and being a warm support for cats and feeling decidedly uncreative indeed. wah.

500 words or less: the introduction (plus kudos for Jonathan Coulton)

I’ve been thinking for a while that I need to write more fiction (and a bunch of people who have read my fiction have told me so too). But I’ve been really bad at writing fiction for a really long time. Recently, I stink at it. I’m boring. I can’t finish anything. So then I was thinking maybe I need to stop being so tense and that maybe I need a. pressure and b. permission to suck a lot.

So here’s the plan. Every day I’m going to open a book at random from somewhere in my house and pick a word. And every day, more or less, I’m going to write 500 words or less about that word. And I’m going to post it here. I started already, yesterday, with Library, and today with Comb, because I forgot to post this intro yesterday. Sorry about that.

500 words or less, every day (more or less). A lot of of the 500 words are going to be plotless (entire stories in 500 words are hard). Some of them — lots of them — are going to be very bad. Many of them may be significantly shorter than 500 words. And, um, we’ll see how long I can keep it up. I’m not so good with the follow through. But that’s my idea.

I got this idea, by the way, from one Jonathan Coulton, a singer/songwriter who writes and records (and releases, for free, on his blog) a song a week (except up until right this very moment I was misremembering it as a song a day, which is why I picked 500 words a day (more or less). Darn! Darn! Darn! I could have gone with a week! argh!). He describes his “Thing a Week” like this:

Thing a Week is my forced-march approach to writing and recording. Since September 2005 I have posted a new song every Friday in an effort to keep the creative juices flowing and to prove to myself that I can actually create on a schedule. It’s been a real learning experience – I’m not always happy with the outcome, but I’m learning to let some of the details go, and I’m figuring out how to keep from censoring myself all the time.

See his song list here. Lots of these songs are really, really great. Try, for example: Code Monkey, Flickr, Baby Got Back, Ikea, Re Your Brains, Mandelbrot Set.

500 words or less: comb


Jackson, the fisherman who lived by the shoals where the river meets the
sea, captured a mermaid took her as his wife. The men in the town
congratulated him heartily for finding a wife so beautiful, seemingly
unaware of her green and gold hair, and ignoring the enormous
silent green tears she shed from her deepest greenest eyes.

The women, however, saw her for what she was. They recognized her and
knew from stories their mothers and mothers before them had told them:
in a seaside town the capture of a mermaid was a curse.

The women pleaded with Jackson to return her to the sea, but he spat at
them. The women had laughed at him when he had courted them, he accused
them, had called him stupid and mean. They called him names behind his
back, even now. Now they would deny him his beautiful wife? He had
found her, he bragged. He had caught her in his nets and taken
something from her, a comb made from an abalone shell. He knew the
stories, too; that was what bound her to him. And with that she would
stay with him forever. There was nothing the women could do.

And then that year the salmon did not come up the river as they always
did. They were a fishing town; without the salmon to catch and store
and barter they would starve. Something had to be done.

The women came to Jackson’s home in the night by the shoals where the
river meets the sea, came silently to his home and with hands and
blankets and clothing, held him and strangled him in his bed. The
mermaid watched, silently, in the corner in the darkness, her deepest
greenest eyes shining by the moonlight. Callie, the youngest, found the
abalone comb in one of the dead man’s pockets. The mermaid took it silently, gratefully, smiled, and then vanished as if she had dissolved entirely away.

The salmon returned to the river, more salmon than ever before. The
women told the men later that it must have been a brain fever that
caused Jackson to wander into the water that night. The water was
shallow in the shoals where the river met the sea but still he drowned.
A terrible accident.

Too young to fish, Callie was playing in the shoals where the river met
the sea when she looked up and saw the mermaid, sitting on a rock
and combing out her green and gold hair with the abalone comb. The
mermaid smiled at her with with her deepest greenest eyes and with each
pass of the comb, green and gold salmon fell shimmering from her hair
into the river below.

500 words or less: library (a writing experiment).

(I open a book at random and pick a word. Today’s word was library.)


Each day in my research at the library I filled out my request form and
passed it through the dark slot in the wall that said STACKS. Each day
during my year-long tenure at the University I waited and listened for
the groan and thunk of the dumbwaiter in the corner of the library, as
my books came magically up from the stacks in neat dusty piles.

What kind of bright magical world was there down below the dumbwaiter,
below the library? I imagined robots, simulacrums, ageless golems, giant
metal library drones, rushing from one crowded aisle to another,
gathering books with precision and speed. And were there more than
books in the stacks? Did they have truffles or unicorns, neutrinos or
the square root of negative one? If only I asked, what would they give

I filled out my request form and sent it down the slot to the stacks.
Under the heading that said Requests I had written: RABBIT.

The dumbwaiter was silent for minutes, ten, almost twenty. Then from
under the floor I heard a knocking, the turn of machinery, moan, a sigh,
a rush of air and the doors to the dumbwaiter opened by themselves.
Inside the space that smelled of oak chips and snakeskin was a single
slip of paper; it was my request form. Somehow disappointed, I picked
up the form and let the doors of the dumbwaiter close behind me. So it
was all just books and librarians after all.

The library in the morning was bright with the sun filtered through the
windows and the skylights in the ceiling. As I emerged from the corner,
from the dark behind the shelves marked 648 – 652.3, a mark on the form
in my hand caught my eye. In the light I stood and smoothed out my form;
it was strangely dirty and creased as if it had been passed from hand
to hand and folded and saved over a long time. I smoothed it out and
turned it over. On the back, as if drawn by a hand with a thousand years
of patience and practice, was a pencil drawing of a rabbit.