10/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When Recipes are Useless

I've always prided myself on having an analytical brain. More than averagely analytical I'd say. I'm not taking the LSAT any time soon, but Thomas Hardy would blush if he knew how deeply I analyzed him as an undergrad at Northwestern University.

That being said, since I've been cooking my way through"s Top 100 Dishes, I have encountered a few recipe instructions that have stopped me in my tracks. Bon Appetit's recipes are more clear than most I stumble upon on the internet, but, as we've established, I'm the novice home cook for's Project Recipe, so maybe I'm just less familiar with the terms.

The latest confusing instruction was in the Grilled Tomato-Bell Pepper Gazpacho. It instructed me to "quarter an onion lengthwise."

As far as I'm concerned, onions can only be quartered one way -- the way you quarter an onion. Now, maybe if I was in consulting or any good at Excel I could better explain to you what I mean, but onions do not have columns and rows, nor are they rectangular. What is trying to say? The onion should not be cut...crosswise? And what is that again? Are they telling me to not make four onion rings? (mmm, onion rings, haven't had those in a while.) Why not just say "quarter an onion"? Well anyway, that's what I did. Four pieces.

After I posted about the gazpacho, my all-knowing blogging colleague Chris stepped in on the comments to explain. He said that "lengthwise" means "pole-to-pole" -- think about the way it grows, with the root end down and bud end up, and that's the length. So to quarter it lengthwise, slice it along a line from the root to the bulb end, and then do that again to both halves. Meaning, do not make the second cut "crosswise" (like I did). And to cut something "crosswise" is to cut it across its circumference. Ah, clarity.

And it turns out that the point of quartering the onion lengthwise (yes, there was a point!) was to keep a bit of the root on each section of the onion so that the segments didn't separate into impossible miniature slices and fall through the grill.


On the left, my onions; on the right, Chris's, staying beautifully intact

It is at times like these that my respect for technical writing is further increased. Instructions can be hard to follow, so I have to assume they can be hard to write as well. Luckily, my improperly quartered onion did not ruin the gazpacho. But thank goodness it was an onion and not a piece of Ikea furniture; one misstep with those instructions and you end up with a mini trebuchet.