Internet Dusts Cookbooks

“I just don’t know how it happened, one moment I was clean and used, the next, I was smothered.”

It’s a common story in today’s kitchens. Youth, in their rebellious state are turning their noses at the paper manuals that brought them their very own beloved childhood meals, in favor of a more sinister, more fleeting cooking experience- the online food blog.

“It just really bugs me, you know? I mean something, I got actual weight to me. I don’t change with the wind- you can’t just turn your back on that kind of consistency.”

Well, cookbook, it turns out you can, and many people these days are.

The act of cooking is a culture in itself; I’m not talking about Chinese food versus Mexican food, but rather, the culture of information sharing which, since the beginning of the digital age, has experienced a high degree of change.  Let’s look past the food here. Everyone cooks, and most people prefer a guideline because cooking is a science. So where are we getting these recipes? My mom used cookbooks and and memorized recipes; growing up, I used my mom. We had an entire shelf of cookbooks, but I only remember opening them a handful of times, and the pages I did use bear that mark (i.e. sugar cookies, pb cookies). Perhaps its my youth speaking here, but today, I could not imagine only relying on cookbooks to provide me with recipes and measurements. What if I can’t have certain things or I’m missing ingredients? Don’t like certain flavors? It was exactly this thinking that the need for cookbooks was born; a fine art of specialized manuals with themes and flavors that were niche enough to be useful, but broad enough to have an audience. Ta-da, a instant-win print publication genre. But ironically enough, it is this exact culture of “niche” that has allowed the internet to serve as a far more suitable platform for recipe and technique sharing.

For starters, with the cultural transition from digital to print, who can share the information has changed.

You don’t need to be a distinguished cook or even really have a background in the culinary arts to be posting about food online. Now  your mom’s world-famous meatloaf recipe really can be proved just that by the testimony of your audience and their flood of comments, meanwhile, hobby cookers can develop a space for sharing their passion without having to worry about sales or viability of marketing. This is very similar to the transition we are seeing in student publications as more and more professors are encouraging students to publish their assignments and essays via the web(Watters, 2015). Though lacking the usual “academic prestige” behind most publications, students are a huge part of the academic community, and by publishing their work, they can help work towards a more pure form of academia, an open conversation, rather than continuing to perpetuate the credibility-based hierarchy that determines journal publication. Instead of publishing home-made essays, issues of credibility here in the realm of cooking are being countered by publishing homemade recipes and then opening them up to public opinion via the comment section or contact information present on majority of cooking sites- you might not be a world famous chef, but if you’ve botched the proportions for “Cheesy Bacon Macaroni” someone is going to glare down at their soupy bowl of spoiled food and start writing a comment or review that will reflect the quality of your recipe. This accountability, which many viewers know to review prior to using your recipe, lends your internet presence the same prestige that a professional  has earned through quantifiable education and experience. Similarly, your audacity at believing you have the right to be talking about food from a knowledgable stance comes from the fact that you are minimizing the authority of the professional culinary world while simultaneously elevating yourself to the level of a spokesperson (Suler, 2004).

But so what, right?

No, not “so what”.

Everyone eats food, and 99% of people have at least tried their hand at cooking a meal. Cooking, once (and still in some ways) considered to be an art and a skill, has now been made insanely accessible, both for the author and the audience- There has never been a better time than now to be among of the audience of cooking enthusiasts roving the internet for recipes and dinner ideas.The discourse creates the public, but the accessibility of the discourse and the medium of its delivery also has an influence on its relationship to its audience (Warner, 2002). As a viewer, you have the world at your finger tips, and as a member of a digital public, you’ve been given a loophole through space to jump from your living room to the public discourse on just about any recipe or dish. The public space hasn’t been so far as brought to you, but rather than being isolated to certain qualifications such as expertise, authority, or authorship, the public space has been made vastly more available.

Could you imagine purchasing a cookbook that not only had all your favorite go-to recipes, but also incorporated all your health desires/restrictions? Finding a print cookbook that speaks to you exactly as their audience is (safe to say) an impossibility. A dream. A fantasy. And though advertisements and marketing teams would love for you to believe Gordon Ramsay’s newest aggressive work is JUST FOR YOU, the fact of the matter is that you are more likely to learn to love a cookbook than you are to love it before you buy it. And I’ll give print that- if you don’t know what you’re looking for, a cookbook stands apart from its digital twin because it can show you what you want. Can the internet do that? 

Well actually, yes. It can. If you were to google “dinner ideas”, you could spend the rest of you life cooking just the results from the first five pages. And what’s more, you could compare numerous recipes, portions, images, and even techniques in a way that print literacy never could’ve afforded.

Here’s where design comes into play. It has only been in the last several years that publications of print origin have started to realize (and advocate) that they don’t have to view the webpage as synonymous with its white 8.5″ x 11″ counterpart- and this is huge. Similarly, what is “popular” or “common” doesn’t have to be acknowledged in an authors pursuit of internet originality (while trying to balance the demands of their audience) (Gertz, 2015). Lets compare print cookbooks to digital cooking blogs. Pictures and text can be manipulated and run with little or no expense to the author, and the menu bar, appearing as the index in a cookbook, changes everything on a cooking website, adding more than just dessert and appetizer chapters. Videos of meringue whipping, onion cutting, and personal adventures can be incorporated for the benefit of the viewer and the warmth of the website, while artistic talents (did I mention this is my favorite website? This is my favorite website) can be expressed at their height without consideration for printing cost or page count. The liberties granted by a versatile digital platform allows online food blogs to perform as better cookbooks than cookbooks themselves.

“Okay, okay, I get it. Its a win-win situation for authors and audiences, and the dynamic design features make it far more useful. So why are people still buying me?”

Well, I never said cookbooks were entirely useless. They’re classic. They often feature people we love, or themes we enjoy and they’re a way of showing support and investment in a passion or lifestyle. The financial element of cookbooks, previously alienating them from the average person also lends itself as a qualifier of quality. You would be hard-pressed to find a cooking enthusiast who doesn’t own at least one cookbook, and I’m afraid its this sort of physical presence that the internet will never be able to replace. Similarly, food blogs struggle to separate themselves from their authors, and this sort of personal investment stands in contrast to the preachy, removed tone of cookbooks which cooking enthusiasts ( and I as one of them) tend to adore. Rather than be a guest in someone else’s experience, I have the room and space to create my own without another’s narrative.

“Wait, so cookbooks are still useful?”

Well, yes.

“Thank God!”

But also, no. They’re more of an image thing. You know, stacked and neat on affluent kitchen shelves by egotistical cooks who want all the attention on themselves. That sort of thing.

“Damnit.”

Well I think that’s enough arguing with an imaginary cookbook for today. To the kitchen-lovers, bloggers, and buyers of cookbooks,

All the best,
The Dirt Mouth

Works Cited:

Gertz, Travis. 2015. “Design Machines. How to survive in the digital Apocalypse.” July 2015. https://louderthanten.com/articles/story/design-machines

Suler, John. 2004. “The Online Disinhibition Effect.” Available from: Cyberpsychology & behavior 7.3 (2004): 321-326.http://truecenterpublishing.com/psycyber/disinhibit.html

Watters, Audrey. 2015. “The Web We Need to Give to Students.”https://medium.com/bright/the-web-we-need-to-give-students-311d97713713#.4d7j8rs6x

Warner, Michael. 2002. “Publics and Counterpublics.” in Quarterly Journal of Speech. 88.4. Available from:http://knowledgepublic.pbworks.com/f/warnerPubCounterP.pdf

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