The tediousness of food blogs.

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?

Understanding about Food Babe.

If you are on the side of facts and reason on the food-related internet, there’s a good chance you saw Gawker’s delightful take-down of Vani Hari, otherwise known as “Food Babe.” The story ate up my whole newsfeed on Facebook almost all day long, and I loved it. I did. I loved it in that way you love things when you are the intended audience for a story and it just lands. Skewers the opposition. Does everything it’s meant to do for the people who will enjoy it the most. Food Babe is ill-informed at best, and dangerous at worst and I am not defending her, exactly. But Food Babe does not exist in a vacuum.

Food Babe is the manifestation of a set of symptoms, like how boils sometimes appear on your body when you’re trying to fight an infection.

I know first-hand how challenging it is to put science garble into plain language. At work, I communicate science and communicate to scientists, and though I am not a scientist myself, I understand the challenges inherent in trying to tell people about scientific discovery. For a story to matter, people have to care.

A scientific breakthrough is most of the time not very sexy. Discovery starts small – someone in some lab somewhere finds something at the cellular level that could have potential implications, maybe in animal models. It must be studied, and those efforts must be repeated and verified, and peer-reviewed, and then if it is in fact a breakthrough, it still has a long way to go, sometimes decades, before it’s applicable to humans.

As a writer, this is the challenge. You want people to read your work. Page views are validation. You want a good hook, a degree of certainty that media is going to take interest in your story and pick it up and maybe do TV interviews with the lead investigator in front of your building. The temptation to throw a little glitter on that press release is always there. Scientists want to see their work in the news. Journalists want a good story. Readers want a good headline, an action item, something to take away to improve their lives and share on social media.

People want to read that something causes or cures cancer. Anytime I read that wine or beer is actually good for you, I don’t check the sources – that shit gets shared. I want it to be true! It has to be true. I love wine so much.

Good science communication resists the sparkly lure of a click-bait headline or a sensational take on basic science. Good science reporting is clear, effective, never misleading, and makes no promises. Good science writing informs an interested public, and benefits the scientists who make the discoveries, the institutions that support their work, and the people for whom these discoveries are relevant (or will be relevant in the future).

Telling science stories is hard, especially online where anyone can find any number of more-interesting opinions and “facts” to inform or reinforce his world-view. TL; DR, and all of that.

Good science communication doesn’t always make us feel good.

Science is uncertain, and doesn’t make sweeping claims. It can’t. It would fizzle and die before it ever got to peer review.

Science is not about our feelings.

A lot of us are afraid. Or hopeful. Or optimistic. We want to believe that if we live the right way, and eat the right things, and exercise the right amount that we won’t get cancer or diabetes or whatever thing we’re most afraid of. Organic kale and local in-season tomatoes are pretty goddamn wonderful. You know what else is amazing? Those blue slushies from the gas station in July when only something blue will do to quench your ravenous thirst.

And you can enjoy all of these things and live to be 100 or be hit by a bus tomorrow, but only eating the kale and the tomatoes is not a salve. It is not protection against the unknown, because there is no such thing. Health and long life are an odds game, and you can get just as lucky drunkenly slapping the table and shouting “HIT ME!” as you can soberly and carefully counting the cards in the deck.

That doesn’t mean you should stuff your face into a bag of Cheesy Gorditas and just hope for the best. I mean, get into those things sometimes, but also have a salad? And some whole grains? Or a bit of broccoli, every now and again, even with cheese sauce? A healthy diet is not a complex equation: Mostly good stuff, a little bad stuff to preserve your sanity, and don’t drink pop every day. Wine is okay but you should verify my claims here because I am blindly clinging to the belief that my liver is totally fine after all it’s been through.

So if a healthy diet and reasonably good nutrition are so straightforward, why does Food Babe exist? Her blog and her books are the results of the worst possible combination of our secretly Googled paranoia, increasing distrust of corporations and the government, decreasing science literacy among the general public, and shitty online fear-mongering.

Food Babe fills an emotional need the way that Dr. Oz does. She makes people feel good, and often on the internet feelings are more important than facts, which are scary and outside our control.

Not being in control is terrifying. Trusting corporations to make decisions that aren’t wholly influenced by money is not a great idea either. So Food Babe’s message is compelling, even if it is largely unfounded. I just can’t imagine living in a world where everything is so toxic and frightening and costs so much.

The urge to want to feel like if we do the right thing, or avoid the right things, nothing is going to hurt is understandable. And “toxins” are a kind of villain, a bad guy we can arm ourselves against with the right combination of information and abstinence. But it doesn’t really work like that.

I understand about Food Babe. I don’t like what she’s doing, and I’m worried about how many people take her seriously. The problem is Food Babe, and it isn’t. Our problem’s root is in how desperately we need to hear good news, and how little good news there seems to be sometimes, at least in headlines, if you’re not sure where to look. Our problem is in how reassuring some messages are when they reinforce our fears, and when they’re packaged in nice-looking books and pretty blogs, and how we trust things that look professional and sound good, because life is so much easier and less terrifying when someone trustworthy has all the answers.

Just know that there are no miracle cures, no super foods, and no magic juice that’s going to make you pee out all the bad stuff. Wash your produce. Don’t eat meat every day. Drink lots of water. Eat enough fruits and vegetables that it doesn’t hurt or burn when you poop. And read with an eye for the details; we’re all selling something, and whatever it is, it’s motivated by our optimism, our hope, and our fear.

Good science is not going to shout at you or jump up and down, waving its arms. It can’t, and it shouldn’t. Look for it.