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Recipes: The Quintessence of Everyday Technical Writing

 By Sabina Anne Peterson


Ode to a 3x5 Card

Gather the flour and the water.

Stack up the measuring tools.

Set out the bowl and the blender,

And sit down on your kitchen stool.

Rally your friends ‘round the table

To savor a marvelous taste.

But, without the 3x5 recipe card,

Will you end up with pasta or paste?


My little poem tries to make the point that ingredients and good intentions alone do not result in an edible meal. Whether we cook a meal ourselves, eat in a cafeteria, or order at a fast food restaurant, the preparer is probably following step-by-step written instructions, commonly called a recipe.


In fact, according to Merriam-Webster, the definitions for recipe (a set of instructions for making something from various ingredients) and procedure (a series of steps followed in a regular definite order) are very similar.


Eating is definitely something we do every day. However, the traditional, June Cleaver-prepared, family sit-down meal is not what we experience on a daily basis. Microwave meals are more common fare today. Still, the instructions—or recipe—on the back of the bag or box need to be followed carefully to avoid disaster.


Food companies like Pillsbury and General Mills employ chemists and recipe testers to ensure that pre-packaged meals turn out the same every time. We rely on the instructions on the back of a cake mix box as much as we do on Grandma Edna’s handwritten recipe for Danish puffs.


Mory Thomas, a recipe tester for the Food Network, explains the process they go through before releasing a recipe to their website: “we brainstorm ideas and do some research. Afterwards, we type up a rough draft of a recipe and test it, which means we go to the kitchen, order the food, and then cook it. We keep testing the recipe several times until we like the result or decide that we hate it and move to something else. We keep tweaking it until we think it’s an excellent recipe.”


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The Big Mac we eat in Mankato tastes the same as the Big Mac in Orlando because each individual McDonald’s restaurant follows corporate recipes for food preparation. Sally Colwell, former manager at a McDonald’s, explained that the frozen and pre-packaged foods that arrive in a semi-truck must be cooked at specified temperatures for specified times. Each week settings for the grills and deep fryers are re-calibrated to company standards. Each sandwich is built the same way. Because the employees follow the recipe or procedure, we know what to expect when ordering a Big Mac—no matter where the location.


Standards, usability testing, and reviewing are terms associated with technical writing, and they also apply to the recipe sub-set of technical writing. The only difference is that extra senses—smell and taste—are involved!


So enjoy your next meal, whatever it may be, knowing that a technical writer (whether Grandma Edna or Ronald McDonald) has worked hard to give you a pleasant dining experience.


Works Cited


Food Network Kitchens. Mory Thomas: Recipe Tester. http://www.foodnetwork.com
(accessed March 6, 2006).


Merriam-Webster Collegiate Online. http://www.m-w.com (accessed March 6, 2006).


Colwell, Sally. Interview by Anne Peterson. Federated Insurance Companies, Owatonna. March 6, 2006.