Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Means are the End

Via Ezra Klein, I see that Chris Kimball, editor and publisher of Cook's Illustrated, is in a bit of a huff over the demise of Gourmet. He wrote an op-ed in the New York Times last week, that blamed said magazine's death on the Power of Teh Internetz. Is there anything cat pictures and pr0n can't do? It's completely understandable that Kimball would be shaken by the death of a food publication, since I imagine his financial model is feeling the squeeze of the recession as acutely as anybody... but c'mon... blaming the internet? That's so five years ago.

If you break down Kimball's op-ed (and his subsequent clarification) it's fairly clear that his number one concern is that people will stop paying for his magazine and website in favor of recipes from the internet. Indeed, he seems most concerned that more and more people just put "Chicken Kiev" into the Google search bar and cook whatever looks good, with no regard as to whether it was some internet nobody posting grandma's hazy recollections or whether seventy five chickens were butchered perfecting a recipe based on solid culinary fundamentals.

If so, it's Kimball's own damn fault... after all, he's the one who decided to put his group's recipes behind a pay firewall. If internet foodies don't Respek His AUTHORITAAH, it's because he so clearly wants nothing to do with them. This disdain, I think, stems from the dual ideas that 1) the internet is a den of pirates and thieves aiming to broadcast intellectual property to the four corners, and that 2) the "product" of a cooking magazine is the recipes. While I'll grant that it's often not too hard to find a Cook's Illustrated recipe reprinted somewhere for free on the internet, I'd argue that the recipe itself is the least important service that Cook's provides. It's that butchering of the seventy five chickens for a single recipe that makes Cook's Illustrated special... not necessarily the precise proportions of ingredients that result. It's the narrative that draws.

Sadly, it seems that the peeps in Brookline don't realize this... since their writing has become so formulaic as to parody itself. They tend not to be particularly honest in their sources, yelling "Eureka!" when adopting techniques that have been common for years, if not decades. Thus Cook's incessant need to justify their latest recipe with the inclusion of an "innovative" technique obscures more than it clarifies... instead of saying: some people do a) and some people do b), but our testing showed b) to be better... they tend to go: everybody does a) but brilliant inspiration led us to try novel method b), which proved to be awesome because we're so smart. I guess that's fine, but it seems to be a epically missed opportunity to truly teach people how to cook and, more importantly, how to think about cooking, in an effort to treat choosing braising over boiling as divinely inspired genius.

What's ironic is that the mistakes and revelations that surround cooking a new dish, by either a newb or an expert, is exactly what I like reading on food blogs... and what I try to convey in my food writing here. Cook's Illustrated pioneered that style years ago, and thus is uniquely positioned to provide this kind of "informed cooking anecdote", but buttressed by both scientific rigor and expertise that your average blogger just can't compete with... however, it appears that Chis Kimball's fear of the internet will never allow that to happen... or, at least, never let it outside the subscription net. While I'm no financial expert, I have a hard time believing that can be successful over the long term. I'm a loyal Cook's Illustrated patron, but have to say that Kimball is right to be afraid... something is going to have to give, and personally I hope it's the business model and not the methodology.

photo by flickr user absentmindedprof used under a Creative Commons license