It’s a pot that keeps getting stirred: Every so often, some wag will take to social media and whine about the lengthy stories that sometimes accompany recipes on food blogs.
This weekend, it was TV writer/actress/producer Mindy Kaling — whose popular Instagram and Twitter feeds have lately featured a lot of cooking content — who wielded the spoon of controversy. First, she tweeted a mock version of a personal essay-style lead-in to a recipe. Then, in case it wasn’t obvious what her beef was about, she followed up with another tweet: “Why do all online recipes have endless pages of the chef’s whole life story about the recipe and then on the 12th page is the actual recipe?” she wrote. “I just want the recipe! I don’t need the Modern Love essay on how you came up with it!”
Her entry into the genre was particularly irksome to some. Kaling typically projects a likable persona on social media and in her comedies, which frequently revolve around a woman’s struggle to be heard. She’s plenty wealthy enough to afford to pay for the kind of content she’d apparently prefer. And then there’s the fact that she’s a television writer, which made her critique of writing that much more head-scratching.
While she got a few virtual affirmations, the condemnation was swift and overwhelming — and made us think that it’s finally time to bring this issue to a close, or at least break it down.
First, it helps to understand that the business model behind most blogs all but demands lengthy headnotes. Here’s how it (generally) works, per the food bloggers we spoke to: Anyone making money from a recipe blog knows that their recipes have to be findable by people doing Google searches. To make sure that the search engine finds them, writers optimize their recipes to make Google “like” them better (that’s called search-engine optimization, or SEO). And what does Google prefer?
“It wants to see that you have expertise in what you’re showing — Google wants to see more than a recipe,” explains Elise Bauer, who founded the website SimplyRecipes in 2003. “You need to have more information that’s deeper and richer in the headnotes.”
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Demonstrating expertise can involve personal stories, cooking tips and a description of the writer’s process in developing the recipe, she notes. Can you freeze it? Scale it up or down? What should you serve with it?
And once the recipe makes its way to readers, there’s still the matter of making money. Online ads allow bloggers to bring in revenue — but only if there’s physical space for the ads to live, which is another reason for the longer posts.
“The dynamics aren’t going to change any time soon,” Bauer says. “So when people ask, ‘Why don’t you put the recipe first?’ the answer is that we won’t make money and won’t be able to create new recipes.”
Some likened the structure to something Kaling is intimately familiar with: TV ads.
Plenty of people chimed in with the suggestion that if you don’t like something that’s free, maybe just … click away? And you don’t even have to flounce hard — some pointed out that many food blogs offer a button that allows users to jump straight to the recipe, skipping the introduction. There are free sites, such as Allrecipes, that offer less personalized recipe headers. There’s always the option of turning to an actual cookbook or to paid subscriptions (ahem, like The Washington Post’s) where recipes typically are accompanied by less preamble.
Even though there are myriad ways of getting recipes without a heaping side of personal narrative, Kaling’s public dismissal seemed to bother people on a more fundamental level. “Isn’t she a storyteller?” wonders writer Shauna Ahern, who has penned memoirs and ran the website Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef and counts herself a Kaling fan. “To be annoyed by someone else’s story — I think that’s what happens when it’s not your area of creativity.”
Ahern says the TV writer’s words are like so many other reactions to online food writing and recipes. Commenters will wonder why she posted a recipe with dairy, for example, or berate her for including an egg white. “There’s kind of an entitlement around it,” she says. And that kind of demanding attitude is only getting worse these days, as anxiety around the novel coronavirus makes people more likely to lash out. “We’re even more instantly reactive where even a month ago, we would have been like, ‘eh,’” she says.
Deb Perelman, who writes cookbooks and the popular cooking blog Smitten Kitchen, also defended writers in a tweet last month when it was historian and author Kevin Kruse who had offered a similar complaint about food writing. “Dear recipe writers on the Internet: I have a radical idea,” Perelman tweeted. “I think you should write as long and as in-depth as your heart desires about recipes and anything else they drum up in your mind and ignore anyone who says you shouldn’t.”
Perelman also noted the gender dimension of complaining about recipes. “It’s mostly women telling these stories,” she wrote in a thread of responses to Kruse. “Congratulations, you’ve found a new, not particularly original, way to say ‘shut up and cook.’ [I just don’t see don’t see the same pushback when male chefs write about their wild days or basically anything.”
Bauer says she understands the complaints, to a point. “It’s like asking someone for the time and before they give you the time, they will tell you how the watch was made,” she says. It’s just a matter of people understanding what they’re getting, she says. And even though there are plenty of ways to avoid them, she put in a practical plug for the kind of personal stories that Kaling mocked. “I want to know who wrote this recipe,” she says. “I want to know how committed they are to quality recipes, and personal stories give me insight into that.”
Ahern says stories are needed more than ever right now. “It’s absolutely essential,” she says. “Our stories are going to connect us.”
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