In 2009, Cook’s Illustrated founder Christopher Kimball wrote a eulogy for Gourmet, the glossy Condé Nast magazine that was being shuttered after nearly seven decades. The publication had been a home for people who valued culinary expertise, wrote Kimball—a place with “respect for those who had earned the chops, as it were, who had a lifetime of good breeding and experience in order to stand at the cultural helm.” In its place, Kimball saw a food culture overrun by “a million instant pundits” promoting slapdash, amateur fare. “Google ‘broccoli casserole’ and make the first recipe you find,” he wrote. “I guarantee it will be disappointing.”
The first Google result for broccoli casserole (at least when I checked the other week, though the algorithm seems to change daily) is a dish by a home cook named Stacy M. Polcyn. “Awesome Broccoli-Cheese Casserole” calls for one can of condensed cream of mushroom soup; one cup of mayonnaise; three packages of frozen broccoli; 8 ounces of cheddar cheese; an egg; a quarter cup of chopped onion; then salt, pepper, and paprika to taste. Mix everything together, bake at 350. The dish has been given hundreds of five-star ratings from people who leave comments suggesting tweaks (“I added 1 teaspoon garlic salt”) and expressing their enthusiasm (“All I have to say is YUM!”). It is, of course, from Allrecipes.com.
In the world of online recipe aggregators, Allrecipes is distinctly unglamorous. While rival website Epicurious culls recipes from Bon Appétit and the now-defunct Gourmet, Allrecipes takes crowdsourced creations from home cooks and then writes them up in standardized form. In the era of the ornate food description, Allrecipes favors a house style shorn of ostentation. The site uses “stir” or “cook” instead of “sauté” (“because that’s a French word,” explains Esmee Williams, Allrecipes’ vice president of consumer and brand strategy). Sugar cookies are “easy.” Pancakes are “old fashioned.” Many, many dishes are “creamy.”
And at a time when readers of aspirational food websites are used to images of impossibly perfect dishes—each microgreen artfully placed by some tweezer-wielding stylist—Allrecipes offers amateur snaps of amateur meals. The site is awash with close-ups of sludgy-looking soups; photos of stuffed peppers that look like they’ve been captured in the harsh, unforgiving light of a public washroom; and shot after shot documenting the myriad ways that melted cheese can congeal. It is all, Kimball and his ilk would agree, extremely disappointing. It’s also perhaps the most accurate, democratic snapshot of American culinary desires.
Allrecipes is the most popular English-language food website in the world. According to ComScore, last December the site got almost 50 million visits, the biggest month by any food site ever. Thanks to its mastery of search engine optimization, the site’s recipes constantly appear near the top of Google search results. If you look for “lasagna recipes,” as I did the other day, you’ll immediately find “World’s Best Lasagna,” a recipe that has been one of the website’s most popular dishes for 15 years. The recipe (which makes a perfectly tasty lasagna) was viewed more than 6 million times last year alone and has received more than 11,000 five-star ratings. In an era of celebrity chefs and recipe-kit delivery services developed by experts, a pasta dish by a Dallas dad who describes his heritage as “entirely Anglo-Saxon” is quite possibly America’s most-cooked meal.
What’s remarkable isn’t so much Allrecipes’ dominance but how distant the site feels from the food conversation in the media. To be alive in 2016 is to be assailed by food trends (goodbye, bone broth; hello, Hawaiian poke!). It means reading a Bon Appétit article that admonishes you to “stop roasting your veg in a screaming-hot oven” less than a month after reading a Bon Appétit article that told you to do exactly that. It means being bombarded with demands that you put aside last year’s kale and try cauliflower, the new “veg-lebrity” that is “taking over your Instagram feed” because—according to a writer with more than a little chutzpah—it can “taste better than steak.”
The gap between the food we cook and the food we talk about has never been larger. Culturally, it’s the same gap that exists between The Americans—the brainy FX spy show that seems to have nearly as many internet recappers as viewers—and shows like the immensely popular and rarely discussed NCIS. Breathless blog posts about the latest food trends can feel like certain corners of music criticism, pre-poptimism, when writers would obsess over the latest postrock band that was using really interesting time signatures while ignoring the vast majority of music people listened to on the radio. The food at Allrecipes is the massively popular, not-worth-talking-about mainstream.
So, what are the meals that people are actually cooking in 2016? A look at the website’s “hall of fame”—recipes that have been highly rated thousands of times—offers a glimpse of the contemporary American palate. There are old-fashioned sounding dishes such as “Boilermaker Tailgate Chili” and “Apple Pie by Grandma Ople.” Recipes that dip a toe into flavors beyond middle America generally only get as far as “Baked Chicken Teriyaki” or “Chicken Enchiladas II” (the Allrecipes convention is to number each successive recipe for the same dish as if it’s a Rocky sequel). There are attempts to reproduce favorite chain meals, such as “Clone of a Cinnabon” and “Restaurant-Style Buffalo Chicken Wings” (the restaurant is Hooters). There is “Chicken Pot Pie IX,” which seems to have vaulted over chicken pot pies I through VIII on the strength of its unimpeachable moistness.
To work your way through the Allrecipes hall of fame, Julie & Julia–style, is to be confronted with an obvious truth: Most people are far more concerned with convenience and affordability than authenticity or novelty. “Baked Ziti I” calls for sour cream in place of ricotta and makes a totally respectable casserole. To make “Zesty Slow Cooker Chicken Barbecue,” all I had to do was throw a few chicken breasts into a slow cooker along with half a bottle of barbecue sauce, a little brown sugar, and some Italian dressing.
Last week, I went to my local grocery store and bought the ingredients for “Awesome Broccoli-Cheese Casserole.” In the midst of a busy weekend—days after moving into a new place, with deadlines looming and unpacked boxes everywhere—it was a relief to just mix together a few ingredients and throw a dish into the oven. The casserole tasted exactly as you’d imagine: an alchemy of salt and lipids designed to flow to the pleasure centers of your brain before, shortly afterward, migrating to the shame centers and then hardening in the arteries. I sheepishly brought the casserole to a birthday potluck. It was unsubtle and unfashionable, a dish no professional would ever promote. My friends, a couple with busy lives and a new baby, took the leftovers home and happily finished them the next day.
For the most part, the hall of fame recipes are dishes that don’t require exotic, expensive ingredients. They’re familiar. They’re unpretentious. More than anything, they’re a reminder that although the conversation about food moves at light speed, with new trends pinging across our social media accounts daily, our actual cooking habits change much more slowly. Tastes are passed down from parents, palates developed over lifetimes. Shifts happen over generations, not weeks.
If “Awesome Broccoli-Cheese Casserole” tastes like a dish from the past, then that’s because it is. “My mom used to make this easy recipe every Thanksgiving when I was little,” Polcyn writes in the recipe description. Now, years later, she continues to make it, despite the fact that it feels a little out-of-date. “Even though I rarely cook with canned condensed soups, I still make this yummy broccoli casserole during the holiday season.”
Of course, this isn’t to say that Allrecipes is entirely indifferent to the oscillations of foodie culture. The cheese-heavy casseroles and slow-cooker roasts show no sign of disappearing, but new recipes are slowly creeping up the list. According to Allrecipes’ Williams, the data shows a slow migration toward fresh fruit and vegetables. Younger cooks are trying more “ethnic food,” experimenting with a Cuban Picadillo or a Thai coconut milk soup. And recently, Williams noticed an unusual ingredient gaining popularity. It was working its way into mashed-potato recipes and even appearing as a main course. “Cauliflower,” she said, “is going crazy.”