by Michaella A. Thornton
In the foodie world, as in most worlds now mediated online, there is intense pride at having a recipe “go viral.” Samin Nosrat, the delightful author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and the ensuing Netflix series based on the cookbook, admits as much in her recent confessional-recipe (it is a form, trust me) entitled, “Delicious Doesn’t Always Mean Pretty.”
The title Nosrat, or her editors, chose could sub in for the wisdom my grandmother Anna Lee handed down, as many grandmothers before her and as Forrest Gump once said, “pretty is as pretty does.”
In other words, sure, the photograph of Nosrat’s recipe for stock-and-cider-brined chicken over stuffing evokes studies of brown and beige ad nauseum, but if the dish tastes delectable, then why knock it? Not everyone has a pastel-colored outdoor wall handy in which to hold their artisanal ice cream cone or lavender coconut macaroon or green smoothie with perfectly manicured or artfully chipped nail polish. But the ability to capture one’s food in the best light, with the right plating and ambiance, and the sharpest angles seems tantamount, Nosrat argues, for a recipe to go viral.
Chefs often chant, “We eat with our eyes,” so, yes, of course, an Instagram-worthy recipe may very well catapult a dish to viral-flamed fame. But I have also made plenty of recipes where the pretty picture and many likes did not render a tasty morsel. And there is a whole Netflix series (Nailed It!) devoted to the Pinterest-fails we lesser mortals create, trying in vain to construct beauty without having the skills, knowledge, pantries, or culinary mojo to pull off a three-tiered High Tea Anti-Gravity cake or a demonic damsel-in-distress fondant princess.
But really, while eating with our eyes is an intuitive way to eat, so is eating with our proletariat, perhaps less sexy, taste buds and nose. Eyes can be easily deceived. Taste, however, allows us to truly savor what is on our tongue—what we chew and enjoy versus what we spit out. Smell is the closest sense linked with memory. And while all of our senses undeniably play a big role in whether a recipe will hit the big time, really one of the biggest factors is whether a crowd of social-media users hop on the likes train and share, and share alike.
What irritates me with this approach of judging recipes by the middle-school technique of more likes or shares equal the “best” recipe, is that there are plenty of recipes out there that may be photogenic, easy to follow, and even imbued with the ethos of a damn fine cook or recipe tester, but somehow do not receive the love. Whatever is missing, that certain je ne sais quoi, might not align with the fleeting and fickle 15 minutes of fame. There are, of course, far more wonderful, competent recipes on the internet which will never go viral, and that is fine, perhaps even preferable.
Take, for instance, the recipe of my most-requested cookie—Salted Oatmeal Cookies with Dark Chocolate. Rebekah Peppler, author of APÉRITIF: Cocktail Hour the French Way, developed this cookie recipe for the magazine Real Simple in 2003, but unlike Alison Roman’s 2017 mythical “The Cookie,” a decadence so beloved and subversive to the traditional chocolate chip cookie an article must be included. Peppler’s ode to salt, sweet, and oaty grit, however, never quite gained ground and earned only a paltry three out of five stars (as compared to Roman’s four out of five stars and 3,011 ratings). Of course, a lot has changed with social-media sharing between 2003 and 2017—a whole generation of changes, in fact.
Yet, in my kitchen, these cookies are edible deities. They routinely floor friends, family, office-mates, have been baked for a bride’s cookie table, and won a best friend’s family cookie contest. I know, I know, I do not have the culinary-star power of Roman or Peppler, both accomplished and talented writers, and recipe developers. But after realizing that one of the go-to cookie recipes I turn to is, well, never likely to go viral, I began to understand the weird practice of chefs and home cooks who refuse to share beloved recipes or change or omit an ingredient just to ensure their version is the best. Practices, quite frankly, I have a hard time supporting. A recipe, no matter how glorious under your hands, is going to be riffed upon, like jazz, so why try to squelch the magic?
Perhaps instead of wishing for large-scale yet ultimately short-lived fame, which is even more elusive in our 24-hour news cycle, we should be grateful our off-the-beaten-path recipe is a stealth stunner. I do not think going viral imbues a recipe or its developer with any more greatness. Ad revenue, yes, but divining taste by the numbers alone seems like a losing, lonely prospect, like crowdsourcing your palate instead of trusting your gut.
Michaella A. Thornton’s writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, New South, The Southeast Review, The New Territory Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, and a University of Missouri Press anthology, Words Matter: Writing to Make a Difference (2016).
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