Over Engineering a Recipe Markup Language

A few years ago my grandmother gifted me small box filled with dozens of hand-picked recipes for appetizers, main courses, deserts, soups, salads, bread, beverages, pasta, pies, and so much more. This recipe box is among my most prized possessions and represents one of the few areas where my grandmother and I share a common interest. I am not a very skilled cook, but the act of preparing food is something that I deeply enjoy.

Occasionally my partner and I will make a date out of cooking, sometimes using a recipe from this recipe box, and other times grabbing a random recipe off of the internet. Unfortunately, my partner and I have not been keeping very good track of which recipes we have already tried and which recipes we would like to make again. So a little while ago I had the idea to put together a recipe website for our own version of a shared recipe box where we could write down and store the recipes that we thought were worth holding on to. I figured we could structure the recipe website similar to how I structure and build my personal website: recipes would be written in some plain text markup language and a script would be used to generate a full static site from those recipes.

There are a bajillion recipe data formats and markup languages1, but I thought it would be cool to try making my own recipe language, because building things is fun and because I have rampant NIH syndrome. So this past weekend I sat down with the intention to put together a simple recipe language and before I knew it I had created a full blown text-based functional language that had well exceeded the scope of my original plan. Here is the example document, a PB&J recipe, taken from the project repository:

[run lib/recipe.tart]
[recipe Peanut Butter and Jelly]

The classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

[ingredients
    [- bread (2 slices)]
    [- peanut butter]
    [- jelly]]

[instructions
    [- Spread peanut butter on a slice of bread.]
    [- Spread jelly on the other slice of bread.]
    [- Put the two slices of bread together to create a sandwich filled with a
       mixture of peanut butter and jelly.]]

And here is the HTML generated from this document:

<h1>Peanut Butter and Jelly</h1> The classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich. <h2>Ingredients</h2> <ul><li>bread (2 slices)</li><li>peanut butter</li><li>jelly</li></ul> <h2>Instructions</h2> <ol><li>Spread peanut butter on a slice of bread.</li><li>Spread jelly on the other slice of bread.</li><li>Put the two slices of bread together to create a sandwich filled with a mixture of peanut butter and jelly.</li></ol>

The language, which I have decided to call Tart, uses a Lisp-like syntax where procedures are invoked using square brackets, [procedure argument-1 argument-2 etc.], and bare words are considered atomic strings. The expression:

[recipe Peanut Butter and Jelly]

consists of a procedure recipe called with the string arguments Peanut, Butter, and, and Jelly. The result of each top-level expression in Tart is written as output, and in this case the top-level recipe invocation is transformed into the h1 tags and content seen in the generated text.

The bare words:

The classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

below the recipe procedure call are all atomic string expressions that are written as output which we see just after the closing h1 tag in the generated text. Tart reads like a plain text markup language, but behaves more like a functional programming language.

I should also mention that Tart allows the user to define custom procedures in order to create domain-specific markup languages. The run procedure at the top of the PB&J recipe is actually loading and executing another document which contains the declarations for the recipe, ingredients, and instructions procedures used for markup, as well the procedure - which is used to make the arguments to instructions and ingredients look like a bullet point. Here is the contents of lib/recipe.tart:

[let hx [lambda [level args...]
    [join ""
        [vector
            [cat <h [get level] >]
            [get args]
            [cat </h [get level] >]]]]]

[let h1 [lambda [args...] [hx 1 [get args]]]]
[let h2 [lambda [args...] [hx 2 [get args]]]]

[let li-vector [lambda [args]
    [join "" [vector <li> [get args] </li>]]]]
[let ol-vector [lambda [args]
    [let list-items [map [get li] [get args]]]
    [join "" [cat [vector <ol>] [get list-items] [vector </ol>]]]]]
[let ul-vector  [lambda [args]
    [let list-items [map [get li] [get args]]]
    [join "" [cat [vector <ul>] [get list-items] [vector </ul>]]]]]

[let li [lambda [args...] [li-vector [get args]]]]
[let ol [lambda [args...] [ol-vector [get args]]]]
[let ul [lambda [args...] [ul-vector [get args]]]]

[let recipe [lambda [args...] [h1 [get args]]]]

[let ingredients [lambda [args...]
    [string [h2 Ingredients] [ul-vector [get args]]]]]

[let instructions [lambda [args...]
    [string [h2 Instructions] [ol-vector [get args]]]]]

[let - [lambda [args...] [string [get args]]]]

There is a lot of functional programmy looking stuff here, and the language overview contains a explanation for how many of these constructs work, but describing the semantics of Tart’s ad hoc language definition is not the point of this post. I just think its neat that the language allows a user to define their own custom markup starting with just a handful of builtin procedures. Tart is definitely not the first language to allow custom procedures2, but I was surprised at how they sort of naturally came about once I started thinking of Tart as an expression-oriented language.

Okay back to the original problem. In order to make a cute recipe website we needed a recipe markup language, and now we have a recipe markup language. Mission accomplished, right? Well not really. Let’s take a step back for a moment and look at the PB&J recipe again. We have a recipe name, recipe description, list of ingredients, and instructions on how to prepare the recipe. Most recipes follow this structure. Recipe websites, cook books, and the index cards in my recipe box all have a recipe name, recipe description, ingredients list, and cooking instructions. We can use Tart with the recipe.tart library to standardize this structure, but I think it is all a bit… much.

Do we really need an expression-oriented text-based language with, closures, higher-order functions, and all that other functional programmy stuff just to write out a recipe name, recipe description, ingredients list, and cooking instructions? Definitely not. Moreover, compare the PB&J recipe written in Tart to that same recipe written in Markdown:

Peanut Butter and Jelly
=======================

The classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

## Ingredients

- bread (2 slices)
- peanut butter
- jelly

## Instructions

1. Spread peanut butter on a slice of bread.
2. Spread jelly on the other slice of bread.
3. Put the two slices of bread together to create a sandwich filled with a
   mixture of peanut butter and jelly.

I think the Markdown version looks much nicer as a text file. When I showed both versions of the recipe to my partner, they also preferred the Markdown version. So even though Tart was originally designed for a recipe website, I do not think we are actually going to end up using the language for that purpose.

Tart was a lot of fun to work on. I do not really see myself doing much with the project after this week, but I think the language, the interpreter, and the recipe-to-HTML library in recipe.tart are all in a good spot. This was my first time working on a language where plain text was the primary data construct, and I appreciate the lessons learned from working in such unfamiliar territory. Tart may be over engineered for the problem that it was originally intended to solve, but the experience of developing that over engineered solution was enjoyable nonetheless. 😊

Footnotes


  1. Cooklang, Fathub TOML files, the Open Recipe Format, hRecipe, and the schema.org Recipe schema just to name a few.

  2. Languages with custom commands such as LaTeX have been around since before I was born.