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Recipes and Code

edited February 2022 in 2022 Week 4

Hello everyone! After a bit of encouragement, I decided to start a new thread in this group on the topic of recipes and code. I am a current English PhD student studying annotated 19th century recipes and cookbooks and how they intersect with code and programming. This topic is something that I’ve been thinking about for quite a while for my dissertation and I would love to discuss and hear any thoughts you may have!

When annotators mark up a recipe, they often are performing one of two actions--regulation or expression. In cases where an annotator has made structural changes to a recipe--changing ingredients, deleting lines, rearranging elements, etc.--the annotator is regulating what the recipe is or might be. For example, the annotator has marked out certain lines of the recipe for Franklin Cake and replaced some of the measurements with their own adjustments. Rather than existing beside the printed recipe in the margins, the annotations in this case have been mixed with the printed text, made to be inseparable from it. Through these crossed out lines and additions, the annotator is expressing their authority to modify--an authority granted by the genre of the recipe itself, which lends itself to customization and personalization. We might think of this as akin to the way that, for instance, markup doesn’t merely rest on top of text but instead constructs an entirely new object. Or, how comments on code can be just as critical to that code’s legibility as the code itself. In these cases, when a new recipe is produced through annotation, the annotations and the printed recipe work together to improve the overall functionality of the base-recipe.

Alternatively, when annotators aren’t making structural changes to a recipe, they often are offering qualitative or expressive statements. For example the quality of the recipe for Hickory-Nut Cake has been verified by an annotator who has written “Tried-Real good.” When running these “quality checks,” as they might be thought of, annotators often also offer interpretive conditions to their stamp of approval. In this recipe for Sugar Biscuits, an annotator has added “# a very good cake for children” to a recipe for sugar biscuits alongside, ironically, a curly brace. In this instance, the annotator is vouching for the quality of the recipe but also offers conditions under which this recipe might meet the annotator’s expectations--in this case, when the biscuits are being prepared for children. In these cases, the annotator is using the expressive power of annotation in order to ensure that the quality of the recipe can be guaranteed, but particularly under circumstances which the annotator has outlined, according to personal preference and taste.

The tendency for both annotations in recipes and computer code to resist staticity is a key trait they share. In both cases, authority is both flexible and shared amongst authors and readers and modification is not only permissible but standard practice. The procedurality of both genres emphasizes the technical expertise required to modify--and to modify so boldly as to erase or cross out the original text.

In addition to noting their similarities, however, I am also interested in noting how the differences between recipes and code might be useful, as well. For instance, many cookbooks act as almost genealogical records with recipes passing from family member to family member. As some of our discussions from previous weeks have also shown, while code (like recipes) can have a rich sense of community, mutual aid, and in some cases a concept of multiple ownership, overcoming the chauvinism within the programming community can be incredibly difficult for novice programmers.

I wanted to start this thread not only to think about points where recipes and code converge, but also the key places where they diverge. What do recipes and code have to say to each other? What happens when we think of a recipe as code and code as a recipe? Do recipes and code share an aesthetic or aesthetic goals?


  • edited February 2022

    Super nice topic! This age-old metaphor that "programs are like recipes" warrants thorough investigation, I'm glad you are on it and I hope read/hear more about it from you. Great PhD topic. Also hopefully the research involves both making some nice programs and those tasty cakes :cookie:

    Given the premises

    P1. S knows programming
    P2. S states that "programming is like cooking a recipe"

    I've always wondered:

    Q. What does S know about cooking?

    I'd be very interested in inverting this, as you suggest. I've eaten food cooked by people who program S, and it was perfectly fine; they managed the process and the food was good.

    C. P2 is false

    But how?!?!? Maybe your PhD thesis will finally inform me! :)

    Code comments "travel" from the source code files into things like auto-completion prompts in code editors and IDEs, documentation websites, static code analysis reports, and even user manuals... gaining a life of their own, apart from the code they document. In this function, comments are a kind of an user interface.

    A tangent: In my language the everyday, latin-origin word for a cooking recipe is the same as the the word for prescription drugs; prescription drugs are thus "recipe drugs" – a pharmakon as Stiegler would have it.

  • @Mace.Ojala Something else that really fascinates me, is this really closely linked relationship that code has to cookbooks. 'Cookbook' and 'recipe' are pretty common terms in programming for reusable/adaptable code and you even have books out like "Python Cookbook: Recipes for Mastering Python 3" by Brian Jones and David Beazley. Even Donald Knuth opens The Art of Computer Programming with an excerpt from McCall's 1963 cookbook. It seems to me that there is something about cookbooks an recipes that programming and programming circles are drawing from.

  • edited February 2022

    Hey @blankenshipa! Your PhD thesis is covering a wonderful and existing topic. When I started learning to code (or better said formal programming), I often came across the analogy of algorithms as recipes. However, the link between programming, algorithms and cooking is culturally and historically framed. I'd say that somehow the complexity of algorithms and computing concepts has emerged (considering AI) and the reproducibility depends on quite a few factors such as input data, hardware and so on. I wonder how annotating code and commentary is different to annotating recipes when it comes to the explication of tacit knowledge. And furthermore I wonder if there is a third link to the history of mathematics.

    I stumbled upon the hashtag in the third image. This also reminds me of the symbolic meaning a hashtag traditionally has (pound sign) and its structural implications considering social media (as text and meta text at the same time).

    While writing this reply, I'm also thinking about the people using AI to create recipes (that somehow work), such as this example shows. This is of course something completely different, but nevertheless fascinating. Does this matter for your research as well?

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