January 12, 2013

The Power of (Recipe) Language in a Convenience Culture

As a former English teacher and Literature grad student, I think about language often. I think about language’s power. Not just the overt power of a magnificent sentence or essay that jolts the reader into awareness or awe, but of its more subtle power. The way language not only describes and reflects our world, but the way it shapes our world.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how language’s ability to affect our thinking on certain topics relates to food. I’ve noticed, especially, how recipes come into play. More and more in the past several years, recipes call for ingredients based on how those ingredients are pre-packaged in stores. Foods come in bags, in cans, in packets. Not as an option, but necessarily (or the recipes would suggest). This language frames our food in a certain way and reinforces a convenience culture.

Here are just a handful of real-life examples of what I’m describing—and these aren’t unusual:

  • A recipe for cobbler calls for “Two 12-oz bags frozen mixed berries”
  • A recipe for hummus calls for “Two 3-ounce cans chick-peas, drained and rinsed”
  • A recipe for baked chicken calls for “1 can Campbell’s mushroom soup”
  • A recipe for lasagna calls for “1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes,” “2 (6 ounce) cans tomato paste,” and “2 (6.5 ounce) cans canned tomato sauce”
  • A recipe for corn salsa calls for “1 12-ounce bag of frozen sweet yellow corn, defrosted and drained”
  • A recipe for roasted potatoes calls for “1 (1 ounce) packet hidden valley ranch dressing mix”
  • A recipe for peanut-butter bars calls for “1 (18.25-ounce) package yellow cake mix”

Our food has become so far removed from its original state that we now refer to it in terms of its packaging. Just think about that for a second. It’s pretty incredible.

None of the items in the above list need to come pre-packaged from the store. Most could be grown in a garden, or found locally while in season and preserved at home. The beans could be purchased dry and cooked on the stovetop. The roasted potatoes could be seasoned with fresh or home-dried herbs.

A can of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup with white background
These types of pre-packaged convenience “foods” are called for in recipes to make cooking simpler. So that there doesn’t need to be much thought involved—nor much time. Grab the can of condensed mushroom soup, throw it on some chicken, pop it in the oven. Simple. Convenient. Right? But here’s where one’s mind might wander while looking at the label of a soup can before dumping the glob of it into the pan: “Gosh, that seems like a lot of sodium. Can that much salt be good for anyone? Yikes, what’s that, I wonder—a preservative? So, modified starch … I think that’s the stuff made with chemical processes and hydrochloric acid. I wonder whether there’s BPA in this can liner. Probably. I think it’s in pretty much all cans now. What’s that stuff supposed to do to me again? Screw with my hormones? What’s soy protein concentrate? I bet it’s from genetically modified soy ...”

And on and on. None of that sounds simple to me. It sounds complicated.

I’m not saying there isn’t a place for grocery stores (preferably smaller, locally owned stores or co-ops that carry goods from local farmers, bakers, etc.), and I’m not going to pretend I’ve never purchased pre-packaged food items. But I get uncomfortable when I see so many recipes describing our food in this way. Language—even the language in recipe ingredient lists—makes a difference. And it has the subtle power to shape the way we see food. (By the way, this trend of using packaging language and even brand names in recipes is nothing but great news for the manufacturers of packaged foods.)

I want to imagine two scenarios. In the first, every recipe out there in the history of the world that calls for berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, etc.) lists “12-oz bags” of them. In the second scenario, every recipe out there that calls for berries lists just the amount (in cups), and then provides a note about where people can find and pick local berries, and how to freeze them at home. I don’t think if the second scenario were reality that the world would be vastly different. World peace won’t ensue because of blueberry dealings. But I’m willing to bet it would be just a tiny bit different.

The creative act of combining flavors and textures, and the physical acts of chopping, whisking and stirring, involve us in what we’re eating. These acts also feed our souls as human beings. We—a cubicle culture, fast-food nation, and screen-loving lot—seem to need and crave more tactile experience, more room for creative expression. Our food could help provide those things, if only we’d set aside the cans, packets, boxes and bags, and let it.

Photo from campbellfoodservice.com


  1. Great post! To me, this focus on packaging seems to be a form of control, as in, pre-packaged food takes away our ability to be creative in our good and to assert our own desires in cooking. I was thinking about this over New Years. I was out of town with family and was making homemade chili. I didn't have access to my own spices, and the house was making the chili in did not have a stocked kitchen. It seemed silly to buy a bunch of spices for own meal away from home, so I just bought a packet of taco seasoning. I felt really helpless dumping it in the pot, because once it went in, I really had no way of adjusting it, of making it taste the way *I* wanted it to taste. It now tasted the way *they* wanted it to taste. (I might be becoming a tin foil person regarding food culture, but so be it!)

    1. Thanks so much for the comment, Meghan, and thanks for reading! I love your point about the helpless feeling of not being able to put yourself/your tastes into dishes. Food can be such a wonderful extension of our own creativity and tastes. It's so personal. But when we're talking about a packet of pre-made seasoning, all of those possibilities dissolve.

  2. I wanted to prove this to my wife once, and decided to make real homemade spaghetti sauce from scratch. Good news, it worked and everyone was amazed how good it tasted without a pound of oil and salt. Bad news, it took 5 hours to finish and they were all swearing they would never let me do it again....
    oops-should have started earlier.

    btw - i did try it the next day when I wasn't famished and it was still just as good.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Adam! Mmmmm, homemade pasta sauce is the BEST. It does take some time to cook down, but I think it's worth it. I made a big batch in late summer, and canned about a dozen pints of it. Now, when I want pasta, I just grab a jar of sauce from the pantry. I love knowing the ingredients came from my yard.

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