SPI Institute: New Recipes for Writing

| January 23, 2011

The Student Press Initiative at Teachers College, Columbia University is currently gearing up for its 2011 Summer Institute. (See <http://publishspi.org/>). I had the chance to participate in the inaugural summer institute last July, and I wanted to make a plug for this extraordinary, weeklong program. I know that the institute helped me to re-envision the place of writing and publication in the secondary classroom. Here is a sample project that emerged out of my work with SPI:


Recipes are a cross-generational cultural currency, developed, refined, transmitted, transformed and spread around the world.

On the other hand, recipes are sometimes lauded as “secret,” carefully protected from publication, scrawled in a shorthand illegible to all but the original chef, or left entirely unwritten.

The stakes of reading a recipe closely are high (misreading can lead to a smoke-filled kitchen). And yet, recipes are always open to re-writing—to adaptation and modification.

This project would seek not only to legitimize the recipe as an important genre of writing but also to re-imagine the possibilities of the recipe genre. What would happen if a recipe, sparely written, were re-crafted to reflect the idiosyncrasies of its imagined writer? How would Grandma Sally’s banana pancake recipe look different from the consumer sciences teacher’s instructions for preparing the same dish? How does the recipe-writer manage tone? A “smidgen” versus “half a teaspoon”? How might a recipe writer, working within a tightly controlled genre, achieve rhetorical elegance, precision, even humor?

At some point, we might explode the conventions of the recipe and allow the history, feelings and personality writer find their way into the margins of the cooking instructions. Alternatively, we might translate the conventions of the genre into unexpected contexts. A recipe for a smile? A recipe for a job in Hollywood?

On the largest scale, we might consider how recipes could be assembled to build a coherent narrative—a way of representing memories (or even crafting memoir) through food.  (Kerry McKibbin suggested Miriam’s Kitchen as a possible model text, and Erick Gordon mentioned Historias de cronopios y de famas by Julio Cortázar) Students might read through an assortment of recipes and “edit” them into a collection, sequencing the fragments to form a story with a beginning, middle and end. Such an activity challenges students to consider implicit versus explicit ways of creating character and context, to rely on specific, vivid language as opposed to generalities, to play with the power of synecdoche—that is, suggesting a whole through attention to some of its parts.

Instruction can be easily differentiated—with opportunities for emerging and experienced writers to share their work. The recipes might be shared in a blog or a printed book. Part of the “published” product could even be a prepared dish.

I’m not yet ready to write a “recipe” for this unit, but I’ve been invigorated to think about some of its possible ingredients and flavors.