The Cooking Virus

46. Recently, Marian Bull wrote a thought-provoking piece, “Are Viral Recipes Ruining Cooking?” In it, she wanders back to the emergence of the Food Network at the end of the last century, but her focus is on the sort of quick tutorial, flash recipe video clips we find on sites like Tasty. Her question? “Are they really teaching us how to cook?”

Her instincts say no. The intent of these clips is to go viral; that is, to prompt immediate shares and reposts, on the basis that a dish looks tasty or fun or easy to whip up.

Bull sees this in historical perspective. Things have changed over the twenty years since the emergence of the Food Network. Bull refers back to a 1998 story by Amanda Hesser in the New York Times about the impact of Emeril Lagasse’s TV style on cooking, which relied on what Hesser considered the dumbing-down of recipes: “Hesser once complained of Lagasse’s removal of intellectual effort; Tasty videos make his work look like a doctoral thesis.” Bam! 

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First things first. I have my own love-hate relationship with the Food Network. Sometimes the shows can be entertaining, like the fleeting annual episodes of “The Great Food Truck Race,” with its combination of lovable and creepy people working under pressure, both real and contrived.

Some shows can be educational. If I’m ever dumb enough to open a restaurant, people like Robert Irvine have taught me a few things about what not to do. (Ironically, both Irvine and Gordon Ramsay teach the same lesson: I may be a jerk, but don’t be a jerk yourself, whether toward your customers or your employees.)

But have I been learning anything about cooking? Not much. Occasionally, some dish featured on Guy Fieri’s ubiquitous “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” will catch my attention, and I’ll try to figure out how to do it my own way. Here and there I’ll see a flash of a technique that I’ll try to learn. For instance, I love Kevin Belton’s show on PBS.

My kids like “Chopped.” I’ve never been too excited about it, even though the host and most of the judges are pleasant folks. First, my sense of schadenfreude doesn’t extend to the kitchen. I take no pleasure in seeing competent, professional chefs being humiliated. Even the first chef “chopped” in each episode is a better cook than I’ll ever be, so if they’re unfit to make it to the second round, what does that say about me and my skills as an amateur cook?

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It’s not like “Chopped” is a place to learn kitchen skills anyway. The chefs are professionals, and they can do things quickly. In part, it’s because they’ve done them hundreds or thousands of times. It’s also because the show helps them cut corners, with preheated ovens, water already boiling, etc. But I had to watch an instructional video in order to learn how to hold my chef’s knife correctly (what I actually learned was that I was instinctively doing it right already). Same with learning how to take apart a whole chicken (still working on that!). Of course, they don’t cut up whole chickens on “Chopped.” It would take too long when an entree must be finished in 20-30 minutes.

In the second place, “Chopped” creations are inherently beyond reproduction. No one’s working from a recipe (or recipes, see below), and no recipes are produced. Besides, the premise itself is artificial. In the real world, no one goes into the supermarket blindfolded, grabs a handful of random ingredients, and then figures out what to do with them.

And, truth be told, in the real world of this cook’s home, there’s no such thing as an “appetizer.” Here, an “appetizer” is a plate I set out on Thanksgiving and Christmas to make people shut up and stop bothering me while I’m finishing the dinner, which I am doing as fast as I can, thank you very much. My “appetizers” consist entirely of plopping some cheese and crackers on one plate, and veggies and dip on another. My only “skill” is to make them look a bit less random:

In any case, I’m not attracted to the kind of dishes that one can knock off in 20 or 30 minutes. I like slow cooking. Even Bobby Flay can’t smoke a slab of baby back ribs in 20 minutes. You can’t brine chicken in sweet tea and then pan-fry it in 30 minutes. You can’t stew up a pot of collard greens in smoked ham-hock broth that fast and have it taste like anything more bolted leaf lettuce.

Fine. 8,732 people before me have made these same observations. But now, Marian Bull extends them to viral videos (I’m hesitant to call them “recipes”). Do we learn anything about cooking from them?

She says, for the most part, no. It’s made me think, in turn, about how I actually go about using any sort of recipe or video. Last winter, the “Mississippi Roast” was the big viral recipe. It caught my attention because beef pot roast is one of my wife’s favorite meals. In her family, it was what they ate after church nearly every Sunday. In turn, I like to make one every once in a while, just because I’m just so darned nice. And they turn out ok.

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I like the challenge of cooking pot roasts. It’s a simple dish, of course, but precisely because it’s simple, it gives my limited cooking brain an opportunity to break down the steps and figure out how to improve it next time. What did I use for a marinade? Did I sear it properly? What oven temp did I choose? Did I cook it long enough? What veggies got too mushy or didn’t cook long enough? Did I carve it correctly?  Ree Drummond says to do the potatoes separately: Should I start doing that too? This is how I learn.

Then came the Mississippi Roast. Delish concluded that it had taken the internet “by storm” because of its combination of “comfort-food ingredients and its virtual effortless preparation.” Effortless indeed! Throw the meat in your crockpot, sprinkle on a couple of packages of seasoning (au jus mix and a ranch dressing mix), a stick of butter, and some pepperoncini, and come back in about eight hours and see what you’ve got.

Meanwhile, Sam Sifton at the New York Times had gotten curious about “the roast that owns the internet,” and came up with his own version, relying on traditional seasonings, rather than commercial mixes. Instead of an au jus mix, his recipe called for the traditional approach of sautéeing a flour-covered roast, and using a homemade ranch dressing made from mayonnaise, vinegar, dill, paprika, and buttermilk.

I made Sifton’s version first, mostly out of ego: “Hey, I know how to sauté a roast. Watch me!” I was also a little skeptical about the sodium levels that would be in the packaged mixes. I like salt, but I like to have some control over how much goes into a dish.

The roast turned out just fine. Everyone seemed to like it. I also felt good about myself. I felt like I’d actually done some cooking, even down to tweaking the ranch dressing ingredients just a bit to give it the taste I wanted.

A few weeks later, I made it again.But this time, in the name of culinary science, I followed the easier recipe, using the packaged mixes. Once again, the result was pretty good. It wasn’t quite as good as the first, more homemade batch, but it was satisfactory.

What wasn’t as satisfactory was my sense of accomplishment. I wasn’t sure that I’d actually cooked anything. It felt like I’d merely assembled somebody else’s food in my crockpot.

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Mississippi Roast. With both recipes, the meat fell apart easily, and tasted better on rolls.

Bull then asks, “The real question here, however, is whether these recipes actually work.” She interviewed food writer Ben Mims. Some places, Mims says, “still have rigorous testing standards, but others are more interested in getting a recipe out there and seeing what happens.”

I’m a coleslaw fan. Once upon a time, “cooking” coleslaw was as simple as deciding on what bottle of commercial dressing I’d pour on a bag of chopped cabbage. But I was less and less satisfied with the commercial brands. So I decided I’d figure out how to make my own.

I’m still working on that. My first attempt, however, taught me the most important lesson: Online recipes are not Gospel. The recipe called for three tablespoons of lemon juice. Every instinct in my cooking brain was shouting that three tablespoons was far too much. But the naive, trusting part of my brain assumed that someone, somewhere must have proofread the recipe before posting it, and if it said three tablespoons, it must be three tablespoons.

The result was awful. One forkful told me that I’d made a serious mistake. All I could taste was the lemon juice. Coleslaw is one of those dishes that usually tastes better the next day, but the next day, the lemon was still overpowering. After about four days, the flavors had finally blended enough that the lemon didn’t overpower the dish. But of course by then, the cabbage itself had headed south, and I was left with a soggy mess.

My taste receptors have not aged gracefully, but in this case, I knew what the problem was: Too much lemon juice. Way, way, waaaaaaay too much lemon juice. So, the next time I made coleslaw, I used the same recipe, but changed the lemon juice to three teaspoons, i.e., one tablespoon, instead of three tablespoons. The recipe had a fatal typo not caught by a proofreader or test cook.

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Behold, my coleslaw

I should have followed my instincts the first time around. But I wasn’t fooled by another viral recipe that popped up recently. This was a Cooking Panda video tutorial for a Sweet Potato Pie recipe. It started out relatively normal, and then suddenly, the cook threw in a full cup of grated parmesan cheese. You read that right: parmesan cheese. In a sweet potato pie. The sight of the cheese threw me so badly that I didn’t even realize at first that the pie was also made without the seasonings we’d expect, like cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, etc.

Were they serious, or was this a parody? The replies have been hilarious. Yesha Callahan at The Root called it “The World’s Most Disgusting Sweet Potato Pie Recipe.” Charing Ball at Madame Noire called it an “All Lives Matter” version, and a “Case for Reparations.”

So far, no one in my cooking circles seems to have tried it for themselves. But here’s the serious argument: If you’re going to make a radical departure in a standard dish, I think you’re obliged to make the case for it, and not just throw it out there and expect people to follow along. Preface it. Say something like, “I know this sounds crazy, but my grandma used to make it this way….” Describe it. “The parmesan cheese makes it taste like….”

In other words, do what cookbooks do. I have several hundred cookbooks in either print or electronic form, and keep a small working library in the kitchen:

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When I cook, and especially if I’m trying a new dish or trying fine-tune something, I’ll look up similar recipes in a number of cookbooks. What are the essential ingredients? What did this one add? What did this one omit? Are we talking half-teaspoons or whole tablespoons? When’s it done? When’s it overdone? A viral video isn’t apt to provide that kind of information

Once I’ve got the general drift, that’s usually where I go my own way, and put it together the way that feels right to me. I might be wrong, of course. More likely, I’ll be on the right track, and then it’s just a matter of tinkering. Either way, I’m cooking with a sense of ownership and control. I’m doing it my way, even if I screw it up.

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Ok, enough. Is there an actual lesson to be learned here?

For me, soul food is like jazz. Improvisation is expected. Its American roots among the enslaved and then the oppressed required an element of “making do.” Do the best you can with what you’ve got. In modern cuisine, that means paying careful attention to the individual dish and its ingredients. Even something as simple as a pound of hamburger will have a different character every time. Good cooking requires paying attention to such things, and adjusting accordingly. Every dish carries certain expectations, but within that framework, the cook is invited to improvise, and come up with some authentic. Otherwise, you’re just going through the motions, and there’s no Love in that.

A viral recipe video might open the door to something good, but it seems like an uphill battle. Good luck with that.

 

 

 

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Author: Dan Anderson

I'm an Iowa boy by choice. I love cooking and I love history, so I thought I'd put the two together.

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