In the early days of the Food Network, its headliners received a wave of skepticism from traditional food media: a 1998 story by Amanda Hesser in the New York Times inspected the “cult figure” of Emeril Lagasse, criticizing the way he “often dumbs recipes down so much that he removes all the intellectual effort that goes into creating subtle flavors in a dish.” With all its bam-ing, Hesser argued, Emeril Live was more sitcom than educational tool—which might have helped account for its daily reach of 294,000 households.
Almost 20 years later, the next generation of questionable video-based food content—the now-ubiquitous quick-cut recipe clips adopted by most food publications, but popularized by BuzzFeed’s food vertical, Tasty—has received similar criticisms. Three hundred thousand homes may have been a wide reach two decades ago; today, Tasty has more than 67 million followers on Facebook. If the Food Network brought cooking into America’s homes, viral food videos have made it a part of our constant digital consumption. But are they really teaching us how to cook?
Lagasse and his contemporaries turned food into entertainment; now, we have food as pure tradable content. In our Facebook feeds, a recipe becomes something to spend a minute of eyeball time on, maybe punctuated by an ooh or an ahh—or, these publishers hope, a like and a share. Quick-cut videos have removed the middle man—both the personality and the need to toggle from TV screen to webpage in order to get the instructions and measurements you seek. They also strip recipes of their context: Nine million of us have watched a pair of hands make Cheesy Grits Tots, but we know nothing about the face attached to the hands or the story behind the recipe; there is no ancillary information past what’s provided in the linked recipe page, if we get that far. For the most part, these pages are incredibly bare bones: just ingredients and instruction, no headnote. Hesser once complained of Lagasse’s removal of intellectual effort; Tasty videos make his work look like a doctoral thesis.
For many viewers, food television acted as a gateway to cooking. Spunky personalities and rapt studio audiences turned dinner prep into prime-time television; whether or not we cooked the food in question was secondary. The first recipe I ever remember making on my own was Rachael Ray’s guacamole; my parents began requesting it at every family gathering. It became my calling card, and through this semi-Mexican recipe taught to me by a chatty white lady in a fictional kitchen, I sort of, maybe, became a cook.
Today, the quick-cut editing style of videos that flood our social feeds capitalizes on our short attention spans. These recipes are designed to catch our eyes immediately so we’ll tag our friends in a bout of enthusiasm. Cue the oozing cheese, the mash-ups, the chicken-fried whatever. Other, more traditional food publications—like Food52 and Bon Appétit—had made videos like these before Tasty came along, but theirs were mostly focused on teaching a technique, or incentivizing viewers to click through to a story. This new generation of video is food optimized for shareability, not practicality.
It’s easy to cast off Tasty and its peers (like Delish.com) as frippery completely devoid of integrity. But take a look at the Tasty page now (and the legion of recipe videos that aspire to its success), and you’ll find clips of healthy breakfasts and easy weeknight dinners; 26 million people have watched a video about cooking salmon in parchment. If quick-cut videos can inspire people to cook just one of the 23 “Actually Delicious” boneless skinless chicken breast recipes—and those recipes actually work—well, good for them.
"This new generation of video is food optimized for shareability, not practicality."
The real question here, however, is whether these recipes actually work. Friends of mine who have attempted Tasty recipes at home have seen results that range from hugely disappointing to totally acceptable. “They’re not ‘good,’” writes one friend, “but they’re good for idiots who can do a little bit in the kitchen and still want their food to look like they ‘made something.’” The market for Tasty's brand of cooking is huge: People who feel comfortable, say, boiling pasta, but not roasting a whole fish or making something more aspirational like Bon Appétit's the Perfect French Omelette.
A well-written recipe should empower people like this to cook more—more often, more variety, more difficulty if they so choose. But shoddily written recipes can only discourage a novice. It’s hard to make basic cooking skills (chopping, sautéeing, roasting) sexy; using mesmerizing visuals that focus more on showiness than skill is a far easier route. And while these videos almost always link to recipes, readers don’t always click.
“For the longest time, recipes were taken very seriously and test kitchen professionals took their jobs very seriously,” says Ben Mims, a freelance writer and recipe developer who has worked at both Saveur and Food & Wine. “Now, people working with recipes are having more fun than they ever have.” Some places—like Food Network and Bon Appétit—still have rigorous testing standards, but others are more interested in getting a recipe out there and seeing what happens, Mims told me. This is likely an issue of both cost and new media standards. A flooding of the recipe market means that there’s likely less time to test each one carefully.
Most print publications are still rigorous in their testing, but it's a different story online, where the question of attribution—where a recipe comes from and who wrote it—is now a hot-button topic. This May, Tasty published a video for NYC Street Cart Style Chicken & Rice, whose linked recipe was suspiciously similar to one that Kenji López-Alt developed in 2011 after interviewing numerous halal cart vendors about their technique. López-Alt emailed an editor there asking, very simply, that the site attribute the recipe to him; after some back-and-forth, he got an email from BuzzFeed claiming that Tasty’s recipe was original—despite the fact that the only other existing recipes for halal cart-style chicken online were vastly different from his.
“If people have put in hard work to do these things,” he told me, “the very least you should do is give credit to the person who did that work,“ particularly if you’re making money from a video of it. It’s partially an issue of a workforce that doesn’t have more traditional, or rigorous, media experience. López-Alt says: “If a New York Times writer plagiarized another recipe, they would never be hired again and the newspaper would issue an apology.” It would take something far more dramatic than a lifted recipe for BuzzFeed to do the same.
Attribution is the last shred of necessary context for a recipe, if only as an act of integrity on the part of the publisher. Ignoring it desecrates the practice of recipe writing altogether. Even in a world where we consume recipes in one-minute visual spurts, a well-written recipe is still an important tool that takes hard work and skill to develop; implying otherwise suggests that a publisher doesn’t care much for its readers.
If Tasty can fix this issue, however, it might come through as the most influential source of instructional cooking content we have. Amanda Hesser recently told Grub Street that the success of the Food Network, which she once maligned, “has led to shows on major networks, and getting a much larger group of Americans interested in food, and whatever the depth of their interest I’m just happy that it’s there.” Hesser's epiphany gives us hope that 10 years down the line, maybe the same viral videos that currently clog our feeds with promises of fried avocado bites were the catalysts we needed all along.