Monday, May 3, 2010

All Recipes are Crowdsourced

You see crowdsourcing dust-ups in any number of fields... where the experts get irritated by the unwashed masses encroaching on their turf... but the clash between Cook's Illustrated and Food52 is probably the first time it's hit the world of cooking. The Washington Post lays out the beef:
The whole thing began in October when Christopher Kimball, the bespectacled and bow-tied founder of Cook's Illustrated magazine, posted an item on his blog challenging the proponents of recipe wikis, Web sites that rely on readers to share and rate recipes. "I think that only a professional test kitchen with substantial resources, strict testing protocol and lots of time can develop the very 'best' recipes. . . . So, I am willing to put my money, and my reputation, where my big mouth is," Kimball wrote. "Should be fun! Who is interested? Amanda? Anyone else?"

His call-out was to Amanda Hesser, a former New York Times reporter and editor and a co-founder of Food52, which had launched a month earlier to great food-media fanfare. The reference to her was later removed. But Hesser and business partner Merrill Stubbs jumped at the chance to promote, perhaps even prove, their model.

"We see it as an experiment. We believe in what we do," Hesser said. "But I also felt Chris had publicly challenged us to a contest. So we held his feet to the fire."

If you read any of my cooking posts, you'll see I cook a lot of Cook's Illustrated recipes... I cook them almost exclusively, in fact. I do this because I trust that their recipes will be good ones, and that even if I don't adore the end product I'll have learned something by reading why they made their choices. I'm also hesitant to trust a recipe I find online simply because a lot of people think it's HAWSOME.

That said, I think this "conflict" is nonsense. The people at Cook's Illustrated aren't pulling their recipes out of the ether... they don't invent a completely new way to slow roast pork shoulder out of whole cloth... they take recipes that are already out there and tweak them. I mean, granted, putting baking powder on a chicken is something I'd never seen before, but in general, their "innovations" tend to be things in any number of cookbooks. I'm just not sure there's all that much that's really "new" in cooking... I mean, aren't 99% of the recipes simply a particular chef's take on a recipe that's been perfected over the course of generations and longer? And even if you don't buy that all classic dishes are essentially crowdsourced... doesn't Cook's Illustrated send their recipedsout to 2000 people to test?

I've not spent any real time over at Food52, but if I got to know their community and trusted their editors... I don't see why I'd have a problem using their stuff. The presence of an official "test kitchen" doesn't really enter into it. Indeed, a serious advantage they have over Cook's Illustrated is the community itself... authors of recipes available to answer recipes, and a whole cadre of commenters who are really into cooking. Chris Kimball probably isn't online at 9pm to answer my questions about a failed batch of brownies, but a Food52 commenter might be... and if I knew that person to be a good cook based on their contributions to the community, I'd probably trust them just as much.

I think ultimately, the value of "experts" isn't really in recipes... it's, to state the obvious, in their knowledge of the how's and why's of the cooking process. While it's great to have recipes that work, even when you have little to no kitchen experience, I've always thought the best part of Cook's Illustrated... and the part that can't really be crowdsourced... is the narrative description of why certain parts of the recipe are the way they are. I'd love to see them abandon their "kitchen epiphany" style that's become self parody, and just layout the cooking principles at work and the cost/benefit of any trade-offs in a straightforward fashion... but nonetheless, it's still what distinguishes them for everybody but Alton Brown.

And yet... while I think this conflict is silly... I'll still be scanning Slate for the recipes and results, just like every other foodie.

photo by flickr user Anirudh Koul used under a Creative Commons license