Crowdsourcing chocolate cake: How a New York Times foodie stumbled upon the new news production
By Ken Smith
I’ve been meaning to look back at “Recipe Redux: The Community Cookbook,” Amanda Hesser’s Oct. 6 account of working with New York Times readers to find the best recipes from the history of the paper to gather into a new cookbook. When I first read the piece in the food issue of the Sunday magazine, I thought that some of the elements of reshaping news production had snuck up on her, uninvited, but that she had done a good job of noticing what was happening and making the most of it. So first I’ll summarize her story and then look more closely at some of the ingredients. A quick summary, then: Hesser wanted to write this new cookbook (which goes on sale today) drawing on a vast archive of information, found this impossible to do because of the size of the archive, then called upon Times readers to assist in the screening. Upon sending out the call, Hesser discovered a far more interesting and vigorous cloud of people out there ready to participate, a discovery which challenged her notion of the newspaper’s authority, eased her work substantially, and changed both the content and the shape of the final product. Now, some of the themes and stages, plucked in sequence as quotations from the essay. The story began with business as usual — the authority and creativity of the individual expert: Six years ago, I decided to write a cookbook that would gather the best New York Times recipes ever. I was sure it was a great idea… …and the authority of the institution: …because the paper — which began publishing recipes in the 1850s — has been one of the leading voices in the evolution of American food. However, the true scope of such knowledge was beyond even experts: But it turned out to be a terrible idea logistically, because The Times has published tens of thousands of recipes. And somehow she turned to a group of strangers, the readers of the Times, for help. This was no doubt against all of her training as a journalist, and it certainly felt strange to her:
So I turned to the paper’s readers — you! — a group of people I barely knew, for help, placing a small author’s query in the Dining section, soliciting readers’ “most stained recipes” from The Times. The honest invitation to participate was received with overwhelming pleasure among the readers: The following morning, coffee in hand in my gray cubicle on 43rd Street, I was greeted by a tidal wave of e-mail. In these replies, clues came in that hinted of a rich and varied life on the other side of the expert/audience divide, the journalist/reader divide, the paper/people divide. There is more going on out there than the journalist has guessed: The letters also contained readers’ passionate accounts of relationships with dishes they had been cooking for decades. They wrote me about recipes that held together their marriages, reminded them of lost youth, gave them the cooking bug and symbolized their annual family gatherings. These readers were individuals with character, desire, history. Hesser’s old notion of the readership… …as an amorphous, anonymous mass… …began to erode. Happily so, since it’s not proper to believe you work for an amorphous, anonymous mass when that’s not the case. You make mistakes about them if you think of them that way. These people, she sees now, have traits, and she sees them: …as bands of rabid partisans. There were the seasonal-cooking fanatics, the chocoholics, the Claiborne devotees. And there were simply readers who, for decades, waited each weekend for the thwump of The Times on their doorsteps so they could tear out the recipes and dash to the store. Listening in this way changed Hesser as a journalist. These people with their individuality and their group identity and their active contributions: …first led to this series of columns, which looks back at some of the most notable recipes. And then they changed the shape of my career. The cookbook, published after about six years of work, came out of the contributions from the readers after testing and shaping by the two cookbook authors. My talented assistant (and now business partner), Merrill Stubbs, collated all these reader suggestions into a document 145 single-spaced pages long, comprising more than 6,000 recipes. The working papers reflected community values: That file sums up what, exactly, Times readers really love to eat…and which writers’ recipes seemed most inventive and easiest to make. The contributions were not predictable, since they came from a diverse group of real people with whose lives were unfolding over time on their own terms: Four of the top five most-recommended recipes were desserts; more surprisingly, four of the five were more than 20 years old.
But these contributions were a lesson (of several kinds)1 from the non-expert to the expert: It was a survey course in the food of the last two generations in America. Since people were involved, there were fads and fashions, discoveries and improvements, and the sad forgetting of worthy traditions: We learned to cook pasta and to sauce it properly, as well as how to roast vegetables, but we left a lot of great Germanic foods like goulash and spaetzle by the curb. When experts didn’t assert themselves overly in shaping the food columns of the older Times, odd and quirky beliefs had been asserted by the crowd: None of this material seems to have been vetted by editors, so readers were free to propagate a conviction that noses should be wiped by alternating left and right sides to prevent “deformity,” or that anxious people should eat fatty foods because fat around the nerves “smoothes them out.” The readers from an earlier era revealed themselves to be: …a remarkably vigorous community… …any one of whom might also be, for example: …occasionally sexist and racist…. Hesser changed the kind of columns she was writing to incorporate the new-found energy of the readership: Along the way, I created this column, Recipe Redux, to showcase both lost gems and reader favorites. She invited other experts to tap into this vein of reader-provided, reader-shaped content: …ask[ing] a chef to use the old recipe as a jumping-off point to create something new, as a way of capturing the evolution of recipes and recontextualizing the past. She carried on with her project, but it changed, no longer reflecting the comprehensive scope beloved by the expert but something else: It wasn’t going to be a dutifully comprehensive collection or a thoroughgoing history of American cooking. It was going to be an eclectic panorama of both highfalutin masterpieces and lowbrow grub, a fever chart of culinary passions. It was going to be by turns global and local, simple and baroque, ancient and prescient… …because… …its foundation would largely reflect the tastes of the thousands of readers who wrote in to guide me. How, Hesser wondered, could this whole progression of surprising experiences possibly have come to pass? It went against all of her training and her understanding of the role of the journalist as expert. She decided to ask a new kind of expert what had just happened to her.
Andrew Rasiej, a futurist and the founder of Personal Democracy Forum, told me recently, “Newspapers think they’re just in the information business, but they’re really in the business of community building as well.” She realized that the Times misunderstood its relationship to its readers. Her own section, for example: The Times’s food section, which has been around in various forms since the 1940s, had always thought of itself as having had a planet-and-moons relationship with its readers. Readers could write the occasional thumbs-up, thumbs-down letter, but journalists essentially worked in ignorance of their readership: I essentially had two kinds of interactions with the Times “community”: the letters of praise, which perked you up, and the complaining, you-don’t-know-what-you’re-talking-about ones you wanted to forget, usually because it was too late to fix your mistake. But mostly I wrote in a vacuum. It appeared that readers had no ambitions beyond the narrow confines of their own lives and no power to speak and act more widely anyway: And Times food readers mostly talked among themselves. But in working deeply in the archive of the Times food section, with the help of the suggestions of the many readers who wrote in, she began to understand a very different relationship between her audience and her section of the Times: I began to see that readers had always been integral to the Times food pages, whether they contributed recipes [in the old days]…or were featured by people like [resident expert] Craig Claiborne, many of whose most famous recipes…came from friends and readers. Not only the paper and its community but a whole culture, it turned out, worked differently than Hesser had ever imagined. Authority and judgment in culture works far differently, or can work far differently, than an expert is likely to believe it does: …the shape of our food culture, I saw for the first time, did not live in the hands of chefs or the media. It lived in the hands of regular people — home cooks, foodies, whatever label you want to give them — who decide what sticks. An accurate understanding of the relationship of institutions like the Times to readers in the movement of the wider culture requires a different metaphor: It’s not planet and moons but a large asteroid belt. Eyes now opened, Hesser saw the evidence all around her of judgment and authority dispersed, liberated from dominating expertise, at least in the area of food culture: During my testing, I realized that not only did the 19th-century archive consist almost entirely of recipes by home cooks, but so did many of the most-recommended recipes. Four of the five most-recommended recipes — the apple cake, pancake, chocolate cake and lasagna — originated with nonprofessionals. Perhaps this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Taste of Home, the largest cooking magazine in the country, with a circulation of 3.2 million, is entirely made up of reader recipes. So were the beloved and often wildly successful community cookbooks of yore.
For those who have learned how to look, the Internet reveals layers of inventive food culture liberated from traditional limitations — including the journalist’s earlier understanding of audience — by new speed of publishing, connectivity, innovation: …over the past decade the food movement and technology have converged, fundamentally changing the way recipes and food information were distributed. Suddenly there were regular people everywhere who were knowledgeable about food, and there was a new medium through which they could express themselves: blogs. The number of food bloggers has proliferated into the thousands, and a few of them, like the Pioneer Woman, Smitten Kitchen and101Cookbooks, have become brands. Hesser’s team saw need, opportunity, and tools in place to create a new genre of participatory cookbook writing, too, on the Internet: …an online platform for gathering talented cooks and curating their recipes…a new community-building venture…It would be democratic and fun… …and together they would produce cookbooks without giving all the authority back to experts. Once again, Hesser had the experience of asking people to join in and finding that they loved being invited: We had no idea who would show up to our tiny atoll in the Internet sea…but soon enough…100,000 or so regulars…Week after week, there were exceptional entries…People visited from Slovenia and Australia. People fought, and we gave them timeouts. People said we changed their lives and cried when the 52 weeks were over. The Times once worked this way: …for more than 150 years…The paper provided a playing field with established parameters, to which readers like Aunt Addie and Claiborne’s followers conformed; they sent in their recipes and letters and expected little in return… …but now the food writers, at least, discovered that they could work in an entirely different way: Now it’s a different kind of conversation. The Internet’s elimination of geography means molecular-gastronomy enthusiasts can crawl out from behind their immersion circulators and find one another; so can the thousands of cupcake bakers. And its compression of time allows the community to make instant and intense connections. On food52, we just introduced the Foodpickle feature, inspired byStackOverflow.com, which allows anyone to ask a cooking question through Twitter and receive a prompt, informed answer from a fellow cook. Now you can take the community to the stove with you and get instant help with your pan sauce. The old metaphors that describe the newspaper, and the wider culture, are dead, replaced by new ones. And readers are more inventive than the journalists can be on their own: Today there is no defined playing field — you just give the viewers the ball, and they make up their own game. Our community members have organized potlucks in the San Francisco Bay Area, Austin, Tex., and Washington. They’ve debated authenticity and shared ideas for slow-cookers. And we like it this way. Merrill and I have gone from careers of broadcasting our work to collaborating with strangers. While we don’t believe the wiki model works for food — personal voice and style are invaluable — we are now total converts to the power of crowd-sourcing. We trust the crowd.
Hesser concludes, as any food writer might, with a 43-year-old recipe annotated both by the reader who sent it in and by the journalist herself. In college, the psychology professor said that you can tell learning has taken place when you see a change in behavior. Bonus round: if one knowledge industry (journalism) must change as radically as this, what about another knowledge industry? I’m thinking of the one thatemploys me. Notes
1. If you change your working relationship to your audience, you will understand that audience in a new way. The tools that support those two steps also support collaborations that produce insights not likely to be found any other way, framed in genres altered by collaboration and by the social tools that made it possible. Tools, genres, partnerships, models of authority and active citizenship all change, and so does the community’s understanding of itself and its history at the same time.