“It’s mostly women telling these stories. Congratulations, you’ve found a new, not particularly original, way to say ‘shut up and cook.'” — Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen
Because there is apparently nothing more pressing to discuss on social media these days, one of the emerging HOT TAKES of 2019 appears to be, groan, food blog bashing. While it seems like someone popping off an uninformed, unwanted opinion on food writing/recipe blogging is getting to be a weekly thing, a recent Twitter incident featuring Princeton history professor, the popular and prolific “Twitterstorian” Kevin Kruse, has many of us especially exasperated. While he was just the latest of many to make the same old rude comments, this is getting tiresome. It’s high time to pivot this conversation to finally start existing within the parameters of a shared set of facts.
A cooking website and a food blog are not the same thing. When you conflate the two, you are being intellectually dishonest. A cooking website is a database of collected recipes, each of which contains a short blurb intro, if any. Most of them are run by teams of professionals, and they seek to offer a comprehensive collection of recipes to account for as many varying tastes as possible. Some sites carefully vet their recipes while others do not. Some are behind a paywall and others make money exclusively off ads. A food blog is a website written by one person where they share one recipe at a time, based on what they wanted to cook, what they like to eat, and what they wanted to write about. Food blogs can amass large quantities of recipes over time, but they do not seek to be comprehensive in the way cooking websites do. For instance, you will never see a beet recipe on my blog because I think beets are Satan’s blood clots. Food blogs will (almost always) include multiple pictures of the finished dish and often step-by-step instructional pictures as well. Google searching any given recipe will usually result in a first page filled with both cooking websites and food blogs.
Food blogging does not exist to “try to feed your family”. That is not and never was our primary motivation. Food blogging began because a lot of people like food and cooking and wanted to talk about it. We built a community to do just that. It must also be pointed out, we are hardly the only community to band together in this way.
Food blogging began in the early 2000’s – usually as a hobby – but hit its real heyday during the Great Recession. That is probably not a coincidence. While Dr. Kruse was safely ensconced in a tenured professorship at an Ivy League university, many others were laid off in the fields of finance, law, healthcare, and retail management (to name just a few), finding themselves with very bleak chances for rehire in their chosen fields. Still others found themselves as recent graduates holding a bag of broken promises in the form of an unneeded and unemployable but cruelly expensive degree. With few options, many turned to monetizing their hobbies and side passions. Enough people responded enthusiastically and the industry took off, eventually providing livable wages, sustainable business models, and for many, book deals and paid speaking gigs. Well into its second decade of existence, food blogging has turned out to be mostly female and quite a few queer men, and it’s not going anywhere.
We are not a monolithic or heterogeneous group, and different individuals have different motivations. Some still run their blogs as a hobby or a side business, while others rely on it for full-time income to support their families. Some people simply wanted to share what they are cooking and the inspiration behind it, while others wanted to preserve orally-handed-down family recipes and document them before the family matriarch or patriarch passes away. Some bloggers are homesick immigrants wanting to preserve a piece of their heritage and reach out to others in the same place. Others face dietary restrictions – chosen or not – and wanted to publish workable recipes and give a communal voice to, say, vegetarianism, or Celiac disease. These are a but a few of the motivations driving food bloggers. The kinds of recipes posted will vary widely from one individual to the next, as will the writing. Some food bloggers write about broader subject matter such as politics or food history or culture, while others are basically penning the digitized adult version of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and ending with a recipe.
Now that we have established what food blogging is and isn’t, I’ll say for the record that everyone is completely free to form their own opinion on this medium. You are entitled to your opinion, you are entitled to never read a food blog, but you are not entitled to demean our industry as an illegitimate enterprise. If you find reading about food dull, that’s perfectly fine. There are lots of blog categories, such as bird-watching, that I’d rather stick ice picks in my eyes than read even one paragraph. For me personally, birds are just modern-day dinosaurs who shit on my car. But my opinion on bird-watching doesn’t matter. It doesn’t invalidate bird-watching as a hobby, a side business, or a full-fledged career. It isn’t ever going to be me, but I can step outside my own head and be enough of a non-narcissist to realize that someone should be interested in birds. Your lack of interest in the finer points of recipe sharing doesn’t negate our work, either.
Should you decide to read and/or cook from a food blog, you have every right to criticize it. Like every other industry, we contain multitudes. There is excellence, there is mediocrity, and there are a few outright bad actors. We are not nor should we be immune from scrutiny. Our industry is far from perfect, and contains unfortunate things like terrible writing, blurry photography, untested recipes, unclear cooking instructions, frustrating site layouts, unexamined privilege, vapid and self-absorbed individuals, racists, homophobes, and classist snobs. All of that and more deserves to be examined and called out. We don’t insist on free passes for sloppy work or bad behavior. We do insist that you refrain from degrading us based on a strawman argument and the dishonest conflation of two nonidentical concepts.
Kruse says he “doesn’t need us to curate the experience for him,” but the irony here is that he is demanding we do just that. We aren’t trying to curate anything for him, we are doing something for ourselves and our families and our blog followers. Yet he (and others) expect that we curate the experience for him by only including the recipe’s title, ingredients, instructions, and “that’s it.” This is a man demanding that a large group of mostly women lay aside their interests and ambitions to make his life easier and execute our work on his terms. That IS misogyny, and this particular form of misogyny is getting old and tired. It’s almost as if, finally, at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, some men are beginning to take on the emotional labor of weeknight cooking for their families, and their first, knee-jerk reaction is to demand that women make that easier for them.
In answer to your question, Professor Kruse, no we will not stop blogging. How about instead of expecting a large group of mostly women and queer men to forfeit their livelihoods, passions, and joyous escapes from this insane world to accommodate your whims, maybe take responsibility for your own internet experience and curate it to your liking. First, as we discussed, learn and accept the difference between a cooking website and a food blog. Second, do a little research and see which cooking sites fit your needs best with respect to your skill level, preferred culinary tastes, and budgets. Third, tailor your Google searches accordingly. For example, instead of just Googling “cranberry sauce” you could Google “Fine Cooking cranberry sauce” (that recipe is excellent by the way). Instead of just “endive salad” you could Google “Bon appetit endive salad” (also a wonderful recipe). That way you can avoid the food blogs you dislike and skip right to your trusted sources. But doing so is your responsibility, not mine.
*I feel like I should disclose or disclaim that I’ve read Kruse’s books.
Chicken Wontons with Crunchy Chile Oil
CRUNCHY CHILE OIL:
- ¾ cup canola or vegetable oil
- ¼ cup crushed red pepper flakes
- ¼ cup black or white sesame seeds, or 2 tbs each (which is what I did)
- 2 to 3 tbs Sichuan peppercorns, crushed (I used 3 tbs, duh)
- 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 1 pound ground chicken
- 2 green onions, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- ½ teaspoon sesame oil
- A few grinds of black pepper
- 1 package wonton wrappers
CHILE OIL Directions:
- Heat the oil, red pepper flakes, sesame seeds, Sichuan peppercorns, and garlic in a small pot over the lowest heat possible. Let it come to a simmer (it’ll sizzle a little) and cook until the red pepper flakes are brick red and the white sesame seeds are golden in color. This will take around 15 minutes, possibly less time. You’ll smell things toasting too. Remove from the heat and add salt to taste. Let it come to room temperature while you form the wontons, then when you drizzle room temperature chile oil over piping hot wontons, it works together perfectly and no one burns their tongue on too-hot oil.
- In a medium bowl, put the chicken, onions, soy sauce, oil, and pepper, and mix well.
- Put roughly ¼ cup lukewarm water in a small bowl. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Set aside.
- Place just under 1 teaspoon of the filling at the center of a wonton square. You will have to adjust the amount of filling as needed. Wonton skins can vary in dimension, so use your best judgment.
- Dip your finger in the water and moisten all four edges as if you are sealing an envelope flap. Fold the wrapper in half over the filling, line up the edges, and press down to flatten and seal. You will now have a rectangle packet. This part is kind of a pain but worth it to get right. What’s worse than wontons that split open during cooking? Okay fine, many things, but we can all agree that isn’t great, so make sure they are sealed properly.
- Pick up the filled rectangle and hold it so that the edge that contains the filling is at the bottom. Moisten the lower left corner of the rectangle. Using both hands, wrap the lower edges of the wonton into a small circle until they meet, and adhere the bottom right corner of the rectangle to the moistened left corner. Don’t worry about imperfections, once you place them in bowls with copious amounts of chile oil, people will only be looking at the bright colors and impending heat anyway. Place the wontons on the prepared baking sheet as you make them. Repeat with the remaining filling and wonton skins.
- To cook the wontons, in a large soup pot, bring 3 quarts of water to a boil. Add 8 wontons per person and boil for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the wontons become opaque and the filling is cooked through. Drain the wontons and transfer them to bowls to serve. Drown them unmercifully in the Crunchy Chile Oil and serve immediately.