Yesterday evening, I noticed several of my fellow food writers tweeting about Recipeasly, a website that briefly promised to “fix” online recipes by stripping them of context, narrative, or any information that isn’t an ingredients list and/or instructions. In the promotional tweet sent into the world by Tod Redman (which is what everyone was dunking on), he used a photo of a cherry pie recipe from Serious Eats as an example of a recipe that be deserving of such a violation. Big mistake. Huge. (The site is now down, with a note of apology replacing the homepage.)
I could go into a long explanation of why this “idea” is actually a form of content theft, but Helen Rosner already explained that on Twitter. Regardless, I’ve found that people generally do not care about exploiting someone else’s labor if the end result is more convenient for them. But the truth is, it’s usually in the recipe reader’s best interest to read all the stuff that comes before the recipe, as that is where the real discussion takes place.
But first, let’s talk about how incredibly foolish it was to use a recipe developed and written by the incomparable Stella Parks—absolutely the worst example Tod could have used to promote his content-stealing bot site. (Is it a bot? I don’t think I know what a bot is.) For one thing, if Tod had ever read anything on Serious Eats, he would know that they almost always publish a large, in-depth guide on the topic at hand, along with a separate recipe, rendering Tod’s little tool useless. But even if Serious Eats didn’t publish their content in this way, skipping the stuff “before the recipe” would be unwise, as that is where the writer usually explains their methodology. Yes, Parks includes a fun intro about Twin Peaks (because we’re talking about cherry pie), but an article without an intro reads very awkwardly. More importantly, however is Parks’ detailed discussion of the behaviors of starch and sugar, as well as the touch of thermodynamic theory that explains why she chose the ingredients she chose and why she uses them in the stated proportions.
At no point does Parks mention her grandmother—enemy #1 of recipe readers—but even if she did, it would be a mistake to skip all of these words that aren’t technically a recipe. (I personally will never quit mentioning my grandmother, a woman who hated cooking yet had to do it every day, and thus developed many “hacks” to make it easier.) Though a home cook doesn’t have to know why the recipe writer made the decisions they did to execute that recipe, it certainly helps.
In the case of Parks’ cherry pie, those non-recipe paragraphs are where she explains the importance of using tapioca starch, as well as the need for a 4:1 ratio of fruit to sugar. Without this “theory,” some home cooks might be tempted to use the more common cornstarch, or use a little more (or less) sugar, and their pies would be the worse for it. Those sub-par pies would then probably be blamed on Parks; if my emails have taught me anything, it’s that recipe failures are always the the fault of the recipe writer, even when the reader fails to follow the written instructions.
My style is different from Parks’, but the same reasoning applies to anything you might read on Skillet. I don’t write “recipes” so much as “guides” and “tips,” but if I do include a recipe in one of my blogs, it’s usually the least important part. All that stuff before the recipe is—again—where I explain my reasoning, and how I arrived at doing that thing that particular way. The recipe is usually just an example of how you could use whatever “hack” I’m talking about in a specific way, but the earlier paragraphs usually contain broader applications, as well as outline the things you shouldn’t do.
Hating on food writers for talking about their families or their lives is not a new trend. About twice a year, someone’s tweet about the tedium of matriarch-focused anecdotes goes viral, and it is exhausting every time. It’s also worth noting that the Tod Redman’s tool isn’t as new as he claims. As our very own A.A. Newton pointed out on Twitter, this tool has been around since 2013—Lifehacker even covered it back then, before any of the current staff got here. (Full disclosure: I once wrote about a Chrome extension that lets you skip to the recipe in blog, though it did not work very well. I’m embarrassed I published it, but I probably only did so because it was quick to write up and we tend to cover Chrome extensions. In any case, I wish I hadn’t, and I cringe when I look at it now.)
Anyway. Scrolling is not hard, and a lot of sites and blogs have a “skip to the recipe” function. If you truly despise even seeing (free) anecdotes and (free) theory before you get to a (free) recipe, I suggest you buy some cookbooks, read writers whose words you actually enjoy, or try and come up with your own damn recipes. It might give you a little more appreciation for recipe writers—what they do, and the grandmothers who made them what they are today.