The instructions you find in recipes vary greatly according to the simplicity of the recipe, the era in which the recipe was written, and the personal style of the author. Sometimes, very detailed or complex instructions can completely overshadow the recipe itself, a case of not seeing the wood for the trees. At other times, the instructions do not provide enough information for an inexperienced cook to know what to do.
Some instructions feel redundant or overly obvious: turn oven on seems rather a necessary step if you want to cook anything in it.
The earliest written recipes in English — those dating from the 1600s, say — tend to assume that anyone reading them would already know how and why certain steps are done, so they don’t bother with the finer details, or exact amounts, or even very specific ingredients.
But one thing they all appear to include is the instruction which comes at the end: serve it up. Is this necessary or just a sort of a semantic signal that the recipe has come to an end?
This recipe for chicken in a clay pot is very old indeed: people have been cooking fowl this way for as long as we know. The modern ingredients had their ancient substitutes. The method would have been the same then as now, except the sealed pot was placed in the coals and not an oven.
The detail that links it most surely to the past, however, is that final, simple injunction: “Serve.”
The command to serve the food you’ve cooked means that the cook must also be hostess and waitress (or host and waiter). It presumes that there is a family to be served, and it makes the meal ceremonial. To serve yourself indicates a breakdown in that chain of food preparation that leaves the diner in a tricky position: how much to serve, and what parts to serve.
To serve enables the cook to build a dish and destroy it. To serve — in any capacity — has traditionally meant to subject oneself to a greater authority. One serves one’s master. The words “service” and “slave” both come from the same root. To be served a legal notice dates from the early 15th century, and suggests, like other forms of servitude, that the one being served is under an obligation to accept the service.
To deserve is to assume the right to be served. If it all goes wrong, well, it serves you right.
Creative Low Cholesterol and Low Carbohydrate Cooking, Ottenheimer Publishers, Inc., 1980
Also from this book: Fried Bread