Image source: Flickr/Pierre Metivier
Every couple of days I notice someone on social media complaining about the tediousness of food blogs. The “just get to the recipe, I don’t need 900 words about your kids and cat and that one summer you spent in Alsace, Brenda“ sentiment is pervasive, and it’s true that the form is not always conducive to getting people from recipe to dinner in a timely fashion. Some people really do just want the recipes.
I don’t know if those people have heard of cookbooks.
If you do not have an extensive cookbook collection, or if you can’t find what you are looking for in the books you do have, there are some really great sites that post reliable, well-tested recipes that you can either read about in detail or just go on to make. There are also community recipe sites where recipes are rated and ranked, and you can read user comments for a clear look at what you are getting into.
I understand the urgency of getting to the point, and I understand the urge to tell stories.
There are practical reasons for food bloggers to post long intros to recipes; from Google’s perspective, longer content is more likely to be useful content, and so whatever Google decides is the most useful answer to a search question or keyword is ranked highest in search results. Search engine optimization is no small thing, and for people who make a living off their food blogs it is important that people find their sites. A search for “chocolate cupcake recipe” turns up 163,000,000 results; a search for “chicken soup” turns up 411,000,000 results. In an increasingly crowded arena, it is hard to stand out.
There is also a whole spectrum of people who blog about food, from journalists and authors and recipe developers to home cooks and aspiring writers. The path to published food writing is a difficult one, and for someone with little to no experience in publishing, media or the restaurant industry, it’s not easy to know where to start. The internet made it so anyone could find an audience, and so for those who didn’t or couldn’t take the traditional route to a career in food or writing could establish a voice online.
There are barriers to building a career in writing, particularly financial ones. It certainly helps to start with money because for most people, words are not well compensated. The older you get, the more things like day jobs and kids and the endless heap of laundry get in the way. If you want to make a career in writing or blogging, it helps to have someone covering the bills (at least until you “make it,” whatever that means for you) or to be well-off in the first place. For people with literary or culinary ambitions, no wealthy benefactor, and no idea where to begin, a free little WordPress site with some nice pictures and some SEO-friendly text is not a bad place to start. It worked for me, right?
And while no one likes to read a blog by someone obviously shilling, a not-small percentage of people are writing food blogs because they have a point of view and no other place to share it, at least at first. People will say that memories of cooking with Grandma are done, perhaps done to death, and who needs 900 words on Nonna’s wrinkled hands ahead of a recipe for baked ziti, but I think murder mysteries and science fiction and David Foster Wallace are a little bit boring and overdone. Who cares? Nobody asked.
Nobody asked me, but also of course they didn’t. Food blogging is tedious, and food bloggers are worse. (A couple of them really are but you have to buy me two drinks and a plate of chicken tenders before I’ll dish.) And yet, people keep reading.
The late Josh Ozersky once wrote that MFK Fisher must die. “Everyone has to eat, but to write about food for money in America, you have to fit in a very narrow place, and that place is a chalk outline of MFK Fisher,” he wrote. I don’t believe that is entirely true, but for food bloggers it isn’t wrong either. Not everyone has the skills or resources to venture into a more journalistic approach to food writing, and memoir and personal essay are forms that are accessible to the home cook.
Home cooking is unglamorous. Before we had a network of food programming and one million YouTube cooking channels, home cooking was a chore, like picking up the dry cleaning or ferrying the children to activities – it was something you had to do, whether you found it personally fulfilling or not. You don’t hear a lot about rebellious, bad-girl home cooks. The most famous home cooks are soft, nurturing women with practical, nourishing advice and recipes that always work and mostly use what you have on hand. There is clearly a market for soothing food stories by women who seem nice.
Food blogging is like mom blogging in that it largely operates in the domestic sphere, and the voices are predominantly women’s. There are men who blog about food, of course, just as there are dads who blog about parenting. But if you type “food blogger” into a Google Image search bar, the results are overwhelmingly female. When we criticize the generic “food blogger,” who do we picture in our minds?
The most common critique of food blogs seems to be that these nattering women just can’t seem to get to the point.
By now I think we know what happens when a woman offers an opinion on the internet. When a woman speaks (especially online) many of us don’t listen to what she is saying; we hear how she says it, and it is sometimes shrill or annoying or dull or not as funny or interesting or likable as it would be coming from a man (even if he is saying the same thing). When a male chef writes about taking inspiration from his grandmother’s cooking, it is endearing; when a woman does, we ask her to skip to the part we care about. “No one visits your food blog to hear your dumb voice, Karen.”
Your internets are yours to enjoy how you see fit, and if you find an 800-word screed on getting a kid to try to like tomatoes is off-putting, you are not obligated to read it. But I invite you to think about your biases. Why are you reading food blogs if not for the stories? Google Reader is long dead, so if you’re landing on a chatty food blog it’s because you’re searching for something, and if you don’t care to read 1200 words on how someone felt homesick over a peach, why not skip over to Serious Eats or Allrecipes or the Food Network website to find a recipe that’s just a recipe and move on?
This is not to say that food blogs, like any form of media, are immune to critique; a bad opinion deserves a call-out, whether you’re writing for Bon Appetit or for mostly your mom’s friends. If you’re a high profile blogger doing this as your career, this is extra true. But a bad opinion and a story you find boring are two very different things.
I have a food blog, and with a few exceptions I don’t make a lot of recipes from food blogs. In the old days, food blogs and their lengthy posts were a way to get to know a person, to decide if you liked the same kind of things and if their recipes would be to your taste. There are so many food blogs now, and some of them pop up instantly polished and professional, and so it’s hard to know via a quick Google if they’re written by good cooks or just good photographers.
Maybe the genre is dying, or evolving, or maybe I’ve never really understood it and am very wrong about everything. But we haven’t reached peak food blog yet, and this machine isn’t slowing down anytime soon. So, yes. Some blogs are tedious and some bloggers are tedious and I am tedious and so are a lot of things. But the internet is big and there are so many cookbooks and there is no excuse to shit on Alice because she’s read Laurie Colwin or MFK Fisher or Jackie Kai Ellis and thought she had a story inside her too. As someone who writes both professionally and as a hobby, I can tell you it is a frequently joyless exercise steeped in self-loathing and general malaise. If someone’s taking pleasure in it, let them have that.
I’m bored with the idea that we’ve all got to optimize and shrink and like the same things and get straight to the point. Sometimes the internet is a toilet and I like to pause sometimes and have a moment to read about how you’ve started growing shiitake mushrooms or how you bought a new house and miss your dingy old apartment kitchen or how learning to cook helped you gain control over your anxiety. What is tedious is this expectation that we all have to be influencers now and brand ourselves correctly and be universally appealing all of the time.
Why can’t we just let people have the things they like?