California Forum

A toast to the rigor of writing recipes

Jerry Anne Di Vecchio, the quasi-retired food editor of Sunset magazine, was honored last month at a private lunch at the magazine’s campus in Menlo Park before the magazine relocates to new quarters in Oakland.
Jerry Anne Di Vecchio, the quasi-retired food editor of Sunset magazine, was honored last month at a private lunch at the magazine’s campus in Menlo Park before the magazine relocates to new quarters in Oakland. Special to The Bee

As a written form, the recipe has come a long way. Ingredients used to be buried in long narratives. Instructions assumed readers understood the concept of sweating onions, that we knew our roux from rissoles, our cod from cock-a-leekie.

For anyone who thinks writing a recipe is easy, stop dreaming. It takes a lot of experience to write a recipe that charms and works. For that, find an old Sunset magazine and take a look at the recipes approved by Jerry Anne Di Vecchio.

Di Vecchio, 79, is the quasi-retired food editor of Sunset. Last month she was honored at a private lunch at the magazine’s campus in Menlo Park before the magazine relocates to new quarters in Oakland. The menu was titled “The Woman Who Fed the West, An Edible Tribute to Jerry Di Vecchio.”

All 15 recipes – out of tens of thousands – were Di Vecchio’s. Taken straight from the pages of Sunset, the recipes ranged from vintage Tongue with Gribiche Sauce (1976) to contemporary Cucumber-Noodle Salad with Chinese Sausage (2014).

Each recipe was assigned to a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier, a women’s organization of culinary professionals. Di Vecchio co-founded the San Francisco chapter 26 years ago, so it was fitting that her friends make her recipes, many for the first time.

Every recipe worked.

Those who know what trials a recipe endured before Di Vecchio allowed it in print would not be surprised. What sets Di Vecchio apart from other magazine food editors and many of the Internet’s culinary arrivistes is her insistence on writing rigor for recipes and an unrelenting system for testing them.

We ask how was it to cook from, was it easy, was it frazzling? We double-check the times. We go over language.

Margo True, Sunset Food editor

To make recipes user friendly, Di Vecchio gathered actual users. They included about a dozen good home cooks with no formal training. For each monthly issue, they’re brought into Sunset’s test kitchen of home stoves and everyday pots and pans to test the staff’s recipes.

“Their job is to cook the recipe literally,” says Margo True, who replaced Di Vecchio as food editor nine years ago, and continues Di Vecchio’s system. “We ask how was it to cook from, was it easy, was it frazzling? We double-check the times. We go over language. Even if the recipe goes through perfectly the first time, we’ll give it to another tester with a different skill set.”

During Di Vecchio’s tenure, it was like this for more than 80 recipes per issue.

“Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it,” says True, who came to Sunset after working in New York at Gourmet and Saveur. Gourmet, now folded, cross-tested recipes using professionals “who can’t help but fix,” True says. At Saveur, she says there was no time or people to test recipes any further than the writer who submitted the story.

Watching home cooks do exactly as a recipe instructed made Di Vecchio realize that something as vague as the size of a pan could ruin a recipe.

“What you write is not always what you read,” Di Vecchio told me. A recipe is linear. You can easily fall into jargon. ‘Turn the batter into a pan?’ I’m not a magician. We wanted the reader to be able to step in and be able to do it.”

Sunset indulged Di Vecchio’s joyful discovery and useful aberration. After learning from a Native American woman how to bake bread in an adobe oven, she built one on the Sunset grounds and told readers how to do it. When she got interested in snails, the garden outside availed itself of on-site escargot. “We had snails crawling in plastic tubs covered in cornmeal all around the office,” says Linda Anusasananan, who worked with Di Vecchio for 30 years.

The support that Sunset gives its food staff is unusual and expensive. But if more recipes went through the Jerry Di Vecchio gauntlet, the world would be a happier place.

Down to the last teaspoon, the trust is worth it.

Elaine Corn is an award-winning cookbook author, newspaper food editor and occasional contributor to NPR affiliate Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. Contact her at ElaineCornInForum@gmail.com.

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