You make good points about the appeal of food photography; my question probably went a little too far.
In terms of writing that introduces a recipe, at first blush, it seems pretty superfluous to me. I almost always skip that bit on food blogs because it’s usually some cutesy story about kids or gushing about how delicious the food is, which, y’know, I’ll be the judge of that. And in cookbook recipes, there’s usually not much of a preamble, and it’s basically just part of the recipe anyway.
But I did think of a piece of food-related, recipe-based media where the framing is much more important than the recipe itself: Good Eats. I’m pretty into cooking now, and I can trace it all back to Alton Brown’s goofy food science show. (I even wrote an ode to it a few years ago that I’m only somewhat embarrassed by now.) I don’t think I still use any of Alton’s recipes today, but I employ techniques and knowledge I got from Good Eats every time I’m in the kitchen.
I also recently picked up a huge classic book on French cooking called La Varenne Pratique, which I think will follow a similar pattern. I’m not too interested in the dishes it contains, but I’m very excited to learn the skills it describes. So, there’s one case where the introduction to a recipe really matters: when it’s trying to teach you something you will use long after the food is consumed.
Your suggestion about finding a girlfriend who subscribes to a lot food blogs was a good one, but I ran an ad in the personals and didn’t get any responses. (Adventurous male looking to expand his horizons with female and her RSS reader.)
I thought about the food blogs I check—the aforementioned Smitten Kitchen, 101 Cookbooks, and Homesick Texan—and realized that they all have big, bright photos. If I’m honest about it, I basically judge a food blog by its photography. I don’t think the appeal is too hard to grasp: Great photos of food get us excited about cooking (even if I will never take the effort to plate a meal in any sort of presentable way). They remind us why we bother cooking when take-out is an easier, sometimes cheaper option. Photos inspire our culinary curiosity. They make us hungry.
But is a food blog’s emphasis on its photos “deceptive and shallow” in the way that fast food ads are? Well, when Arby’s misrepresents their sandwiches as edible food, I would say that’s pretty deceptive. But I can’t find much fault in advertising that attempts to show the appeal of its product. That sounds obvious, but look at how many car ads and smartphone ads use obnoxious gimmicks instead of, y’know, showing us why we should buy the product.
So I’m all for food blogs with nice photography. Sure, it’s a little backwards that skills with a DSLR are more important than actual cooking or writing ability if you want to author a popular food blog, but there are plenty of people out there who are skilled at both.
That leads me to another question, though. If clear instructions and bright photos are all we need to pay attention, how important is any writing or narrative that accompanies a recipe?
Well, the first thing you should do is date someone who subscribes to about a million food blogs and can find like eight interesting recipes for anything you want to cook just by searching her Google Reader.
Okay, that might not be an option for everyone.
So, when I want to try a new dish, like you I usually check out trusted sources first (Cook’s Illustrated or googling “[food item] + thomas keller” are perennial favorites), but sometimes that doesn’t work and you have to turn to a brute force search. The onslaught of recipes online can be pretty daunting, so I have a simple rule for weeding through them. I look for recipes that include one element I know how to do, and one I don’t.
For example, I wanted to make lentil soup a while back, which I had never tried before. I searched Epicurious, which gave me a stupid amount of results. I could have picked a soup that uses yeast (?) and features “date balls,” which I’m sure is delicious but is totally unfamiliar to me, but instead I went with a simple French lentil soup. It’s just classic tomato soup, which I know how to do, plus lentils. At this point, it’s basically a science experiment: I’ve controlled for tomato soup, both in preparation and taste, so the only variable is lentils. I learned a lot about how they cook and how their flavor affects a soup just from making this one easy recipe.
And now that I’ve got that one under my belt, I kinda wonder how it would taste with yeast.
Alright, I’ve got a question for you. You mentioned food blogs and, specifically, how they’re full of pretty pictures. Why is this so appealing? Isn’t it basically the same technique that fast food commercials use? Is it, ultimately, somewhat deceptive and shallow?
What should I make for dinner?
Let me be more specific: how do you pick a recipe? I know you’re an adventurous cook. I’d like to be more like that.
I’ve become comfortable with two or three food blogs. They’re reliable, the recipes are easy-to-follow, and most importantly, they have nice photos. But checking three sites doesn’t give you a whole lot of options, and when you make enough recipes from the same few blogs, it starts to feel like you’re making the same dishes over and over. If I’m going to spend the time and effort to cook, I might as well try something new. But more than one time I’ve ventured outside my comfort zone (aka not Smitten Kitchen) I’ve prepared something that turned out disastrously—and I’m talking season two of Friday Night Lights disastrous. Like, Landry murdered the consistency of my falafel disastrous.
So how do you decide what you’re making for dinner?