an open letter to christopher kimball
Christopher Kimball is the publisher of Cook’s Illustrated magazine. He recently wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times which suggested that the demise of Gourmet magazine was related to the groundswell of (inferior) content on the internet. He also just threw down a challenge on his blog that proposes pitting a recipe developed in the test kitchen to a recipe developed “Wiki-style”, with lots of contributors. The following is my reaction and response to his comments and to the debate of what I’ll call ”experience vs. access”.
Dear Mr. Kimball,
As you may know, many food bloggers and other users of the internet are indignant about your recent article on the demise of Gourmet, because of remarks you made suggesting that the general public on the web (bloggers et al.) is unqualified to be acting as any kind of “authority” on cooking or recipe publication.
Although I am an amateur food blogger, you may be surprised to hear that I agree with you up to a point. Certain things are better than others because people have taken time or had training to get them right. I personally do not often search randomly on the internet for a recipe; I prefer, if at all possible, to get my recipes from cookbooks or sources with whose authors I’m familiar, to ensure a degree of success.
I also take issue with bloggers who assume a position of “instructor” when it is not warranted. I recently read an online article on how to be a better food writer. When I looked at the author’s own blog, the writing was completely banal, with sentences such as “The [food items] were very good”. (Incidentally, this person was one of the folks expressing their outrage about your article… oh, the irony!) This is certainly one of the drawbacks of the free-for-all that is the internet. On the flip side of that coin, though, the internet gives access to others’ experience that can be extremely useful. When I wanted to make chicken sausage this summer, for example, I did a web search and came across a blog called Saucisson Mac. I found a recipe as well as a lot of helpful information, and got a great result. The author is not a professional charcutier, just someone who’s made lots of sausage at home and knows the ropes.
Your remarks also fail to acknowledge that many food blogs, perhaps even the majority, are written for a different reason other than to give instruction. The primary focus of my blog, like many food blogs I read, is meant to share and chronicle my personal experiences in the kitchen. I do know a bit more than the average person, not through formal training but through lots of cooking and reading cookbooks and recipes, so I do include “tips” when applicable (some learned from the pages of Cook’s Illustrated!). But I don’t claim to be an expert on cooking techniques, and my posts make it very clear (I hope!) that “this is the way I prefer to do it, but it’s not the only way”.
Another problem with your focus on professional expertise is that it implies that a home cook can’t spontaneously (i.e. without a tested recipe) create something fantastic. I think people with training/ experience like to think they will always create a superior result, because it validates the time and hard work they’ve put into something. But I’ve made lots of wonderful dishes just riffing on a recipe, or with no recipe at all. It’s elitist to suggest one needs specialized training (or to follow a recipe to the tee) to produce good food.
Even if one does choose to follow recipes from prominent chefs and experts, the results are far from guaranteed. A great illustration of this point is a blog written by Luisa Weiss, aka The Wednesday Chef. Luisa cooks recipes culled from the New York Times and the L.A. Times, and blogs about the results. In a recent post, she describes a disastrous coconut barley dish that was all but inedible. This was a recipe written by a “professional”, printed in a major newspaper! And yet, that was no guarantee of success; far from it. This is what I love about blogs: the interaction; the feedback. Luisa’s kitchen is a test kitchen in the truest sense, and when readers leave comments about their own experiences with the same dish, it enhances the content even further. Lastly, I defy you to read Luisa’s latest post (about Gourmet, coincidentally) and tell me the internet lacks its share of ”thoughtful, considered editorial”.
Ultimately, I wish the curmudgeons and the upstarts could all just get along. I feel that there’s room for everyone, and that people will ultimately seek out the type of content that is most useful or meaningful to them. I’m tired of the sniping from both sides of the debate. Can’t we just stop brandishing our rolling pins and get back to what we all love- making and eating good food?