Kimball vs. The Internet

By Ezra Klein

Cook’s Illustrated’s Christopher Kimball took to the New York Times this week to dump on the internet, and the internet is dumping right back. See this impassioned defense of the online meritocracy from Adam Roberts, and this strained analogy to Zombieland from Arron Kagan. But those are both defense of the internet. The Gurgling Cod, for his part, goes on the attack:

The problem with Kimball, and what makes him think in this way, is the fundamental joylessness that permeates every corner of his enterprise. I use and like some of his recipes, but they generally emanate from a presumption that eating is a burden, and food is nasty, and only relentless experimentation can prevent you from failing as a cook by revealing the least intolerable way to prepare a given dish. If you doubt my argument, conduct the thought experiment of imagining the America’s Test Kitchen Kama Sutra.

Precision is great, but when, say, Judy Rogers fusses at you, it’s with the idea that the results will be transcendent, not with the idea that you will fail if you do not do it her way. In real life, sometimes cooks are precise, sometimes not, and the joy of the meal is in the making and sharing, not the perfection of it. Pleasure and the joy of experimentation vs. fear and relying on a script, rather than print vs. pixels is what what makes it difficult for Christopher Kimball to understand the way food writing works in 2009.

13 responses to “Kimball vs. The Internet

  1. From the perspective of a reader both of those types of food writers, there is a place for both. Most often food bloggers don’t add much to the genre, I mean how many generic pasta dishes has the Amateur Gourmet presented us with in the past year? But then how often do I also sit down with a Gourmet or Cook’s Illustrated and dog ear some recipes and never return to it? The internet only adds a lot of value to the work that the established media does: Gourmet inspires, the web makes it real.

    But Chris Kimball is a stodgy old twat who becomes visibly irritated when the masses don’t pick the same maple syrup he likes out of the line-up, so I’m leaning towards the bloggers here.

  2. I think this is one of those cases of “the worst form of ….except for all the others.”

    I agree with Kimball that the internet dilutes the valuable information about cooking that’s out there. But here’s the truth: you can’t learn to cook from written word. You just can’t. It can’t teach you how season (the downfall of most home cooks); even the best descriptions of techniques (which most recipes sorely lack) will only take you so far; everyone’s kitchen is different; everyone’s ingredients are different; every pork chop is different. Recipes can’t teach you how to cook by feel, no matter how many times they’ve been tested. Even the best magazine recipes will only taste mediocre in the hands of a bad cook.

    However, I do think the internet has created a lot of bad cooks, in the sense that these people now assume that because they do cook, they CAN cook, and promulgate bad recipes because they think their food is good. Of course, magazines do this too. However, they don’t give a forum to just anyone to spout off misinformation, bad recipes, and bad technique. And yes, Ezra, many of your people at the IFA fall into this category. I don’t know that this is what Kimball was getting at, but I can’t help but think it had to do with the death of a magazine like Gourmet. If we can’t tell the difference between bad and worse, then why not go for the free (and worse) option?

  3. What I find ironic is that narrative style of Cook’s Illustrated is perfectly fitted for the internet and blogging… if they’d just hire some decent writers to breakout of their form letter articles which have descended into self parody. In addition, since their recipes are significantly better than average… if they didn’t hide their content behind a subscription wall, they would probably very quickly be the most heavily cited recipes on Teh Intertubes… and Kimball would be the Voice of Authority that he apparently so desperately craves to be.

  4. I love the post-modernism there. If you can’t tell the difference, how do you know it *is* worse?

    I

  5. Sorry — got cut off. In any case, there’s a common thread between you and Kimball that I find interesting. You’re frustrated that people you don’t approve of have risen on the internet. So too is Kimball. You’ve mentioned you’ve got a blog that you don’t want to link us to. Kimball treasured a magazine that couldn’t stay in the black.

    The response is to blame it on the consumer, who is obviously making some sort of terrible mistake. But maybe the previous options aren’t as good as the experts think they are. I liked Gourmet, but I didn’t subscribe. I have no particular trouble dropping sites that mislead me on recipes or finding amateurs able to offer far better advice than cookbooks.

    The difference between you and Kimball, though, is that Kimball probably doesn’t read the blogs that irk him. You do. I’ve never really understood that. I get the appeal of contrary views in politics, but in food?

  6. What Kimball is hiding behind is the fact that Cook’s Illustrated has a really terrible web service for their recipes that he is trying to get people to subscribe to. And yes, it is terrible. I tired it, paid for it, and couldn’t use it.

    He also is ignoring epicurious.com, which has recipes and how to videos that have been published by professional food writers and cooks, and guess what, it’s free for users!

  7. I know it is worse. I’m just saying most people don’t. (And there are plenty of blogs I do like, btw). I could sit down with each blogger and explain why they’re wrong, but that wouldn’t be very nice.

    I don’t usually read blogs that irk me. I just happened to have added yours to my Google reader (I think because I found your blog through google reader…), and happened to have a lot of spare time when I posted a few time earlier this year. I hadn’t really read it since, but this Kimball thing addressed something I’ve always been interested in, and when your post popped up on my Google reader, I clicked on it.

    So why do I care about contrary views in food? Well first of all, know that it doesn’t affect me like politics does. I just happen to love food and this kind of discussion. Just like sports, this is all inconsequential. Yet tons of people tune in to ESPN to watch inconsequential debate shows like pardon the interruption daily. Why do they/I do it? Why not?! It’s all fun.

    But I actually have a reason to do it. It would take too long to type out my general philosophy on food and food culture here, but it boils down to this: look at any great food culture, and you see that the common thread is that average people have a better understanding of cooking. In America, for various reasons, cooking and food culture declined quite severely until the so-called Alice Waters revival starting in the late seventies. Since then, there’s been a bubble of ‘foodies’ and the rest of the population, which is still clueless as to what cooking and food are all about. As for the ‘foodies’, they’ve developed this strange world of self-congratulation and self-promotion, one based on misinformed opinions about food and blogs that rely on pretty photography and bad recipes as opposed to useful information. Slightly more passive ‘foodies’ use sites like Yelp to write inane reviews that sadly have the power to affect good (and bad) restaurants’ business. No one is keeping these people in check, because there isn’t much of a critical mass of informed people out there. Therefore, the blogosphere is dominated by incompetents like the Amateur Gourmet and 101 Cookbooks, as opposed to people like Ruth Reichl. There are good food blogs: Michael Ruhlman’s is a good example. But people are way too content to just accept mediocrity and pat themselves on the back for anything they do in the kitchen.

    I know this overview of my theory is full of holes, and I could go into the details that I use to back these claims up. Worse, I don’t even have a solution (except maybe to transplant the populations of France, Spain, Japan and Italy here and force them to integrate, but that sounds vaguely unconstitutional or something…). I’m not convinced the more ‘official’ food press is the solution either. There’s plenty of garbage there too, probably in equal proportions.

    Basically, to teach the world to cook, you need to show them what good food is. If you don’t know what the result is supposed to be, how can you ever achieve it? That can’t be done through recipes. And most blogs are definitely not helping.

  8. Sigh. I didn’t fully agree with Kimball’s op-ed, but this “YOU’RE SCARED OF THE FUTURE, OLD MAN!!!” response is so knee-jerk intarwebz. (Not necessarily this particular post, more The Amateur Gourmet and the comments, but there’s a hint of it.)

  9. “Basically, to teach the world to cook, you need to show them what good food is. If you don’t know what the result is supposed to be, how can you ever achieve it? That can’t be done through recipes. And most blogs are definitely not helping.”

    Most blogs probably aren’t, but the medium itself seems more conducive to teaching cooking than a magazine ever could be. Simply transcribing recipes and adding “I made this, and it was good!” doesn’t serve much purpose… but I like to think that even a cooking n00b like me can contribute something by posting about the trials and tribulations of the kitchen, even if a trained chef is only going to sadly shake her head at my ignorance.

    The part you lament the most… the popularity of this site despite the authors’ lack of cooking skills… is actually it’s greatest advantage towards achieving your stated objective. While Ezra may make a post that you think is stupid, his high profile attracts a lot of comments… which in turn can actually teach people something, even if (especially if?) the original post was off base.

    To me, a online community can be ( a forum more than a blog) a lot more effective at teaching cooking than Chris Kimball… since Mr. Kimball is generally too busy to answer my questions about a pie crust in the middle of the night.

  10. Kimball is an ass and has always been an ass. I once saw the man start a serious sentence with, “As a supertaster…” I read something about supertasters so they might actually exist, but to claim that title with no trace of irony or humor is ridiculous. And so he has conducted himself. Before I decided that his bowtie probably labeled him as a sex offender, I was on his e-mail list. In one missive, he talked about the hardships of tapping maple syrup from his own trees in the winter (or something equally vomit-worthy), as though I were supposed to sympathize. What. Is. Wrong. With. You.

    As a scientist (see what I did there?), I appreciate the dedication to experimentation and exploration in his recipe testing methods. But to echo an above reply, being so smug as to imply that the CI method is the only one worth discussing is annoying at best. Maybe I don’t like sweet peanut butter, you juvenile bigot. To echo an earlier IFA post, to publish that adding onions is the secret to good tomato sauce is a waste of time–if you have nothing to say, don’t give us condescending prattling that is also useless.

    Of course he can’t deal with the internet. He doesn’t know if a blog is written by a supertaster in a bowtie with a Napoleon complex.

  11. And I think that he doesn’t get the problem with identifying himself as a supertaster. As I understand it, supertasters are not Robert Parker-esque figures who are able to delicately suss out the nuances of a mid-70’s Barolo. They are folks for whom every single taste is an explosion, with little or no distinction in tone or volume. Like someone hearing a symphony, being able to hear all the instruments, but not being able to tell that the drums are soft there, and the cellos are really digging in. They cannot distinguish nuance, in other words, and their experience is the poorer for it.

    So basically, he’s tagging himself as being completely unable to understand the most basic appeal of well-prepared food.

    But even supposing that the supertasters exist in the form he thinks they do (and they might — why not?), he’s still admitting that his experience with food is something substantially dissimilar to nearly everyone on the planet. There’s not a successful chef I know of — not one, not a single one — who really thinks it takes a sophisticated palate to understand their food. That he thinks he has a leg up because of his disability is the essence of snobbery and the antithesis of a true gormet.

  12. the fundamental joylessness that permeates every corner of his enterprise,may be a over statement and may actually be more along the lines of his reality.

  13. Alex Kasperavicius

    I, too, read CI, use some of the recipes and appreciate the scientific aspect of what they do. To me Kimball comes across as oddly self absorbed. Why, for example, in every issue is there a tome on some weird aspect of his or New England life? I can’t see how anyone would find it endearing or interesting, it’s just odd.

    The online videos of his staff reflect sad and unhappy. No joy, no smirk, no wink from anyone. Each time I see one it gives me pause. Cooking is supposed to be fun, right? What am I missing?

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