I subscribe to several recipe newsletters, and recently their appearance in my inbox has made me a bit worried about their authors. Their emotional volume has been turned up to 11! “Fried-Chicken Cutlets Can Solve Life’s Problems” and “This Instant Pot Thai Chicken Will Rock Your World,” I’ve been assured. “This Easy Sheet Cake Recipe Doesn’t Seem Like It Should Work, but It’s Incredible,” another email breathlessly insists, in defiance of all skeptics. Why is so much online food writing couched in ludicrous hyperbole?
I’m just looking for some appetizing alternatives to rotate in with my standbys, but what I get is overreach and TMI: “This Crispy-Skin Salmon Method Never Fails and Makes Me Feel Fancy AF.” Above all, online food writers proclaim themselves obsessed. Among the things they’ve confessed to being obsessed with over the past couple of weeks: a one-skillet chickpea dish, a brand of salad scissors, and a serrated paring knife. Sometimes even obsession can’t do justice to a food writer’s attachment. “I Want to Marry Thrive Market,” an Epicurious writer recently raved in an article about a grocery delivery service.
Part of this is surely just down to the enthusiasm inflation rampant in social media, where everything is always either “Everything” or the worst possible thing known to human history. (Food sites do the latter as well, declaring garlic presses to be “the devil” and celery “the worst veggie, ever.”) In the Hobbesian struggle for attention, extravagant and provocative assertions often triumph. Never before have so many non-writers crashed the public conversation, then struggled to articulate exactly what they want to say, falling back again and again on overblown intensifiers like “amazing” and “incredible.” Furthermore, behind all this gushing is almost certainly a corporate imperative to make dowdy-seeming recipe sites more appealing to people in their 20s, who are all presumed to communicate in this way.
The beauty of home cooking lies in its dailiness, the way it weaves through all the quotidian activities that seem inconsequential on their own, but when taken together make up the soul of intimacy. My mother’s spaghetti and meatballs, your grandma’s peanut butter cookies, the roast you learned to make when you first set up housekeeping with another person—these aren’t necessarily the most spectacular dishes in the world, but all the times we shared them with the people we love give them an idiosyncratic potency. A man I know has for years sung the praises of the cinnamon chicken that was the specialty of a childhood friend’s father. When I finally tried it, I found it … OK. I couldn’t taste the particular savor of a meal prepared many times by a young widower for his sons and their buddies, a table full of guys rallying around the belief that deliciousness had been conjured in the aftermath of immeasurable loss.
The less often people cook for themselves and their families, the harder it gets to work this kind of magic. With regular home cooking on the decline—even when meals are eaten at home, they’re increasingly prepared elsewhere—the meals we do make from scratch have become an event. If we’re going to go to all that trouble, online food writers seem to think, the results had better be objectively sensational, not just the cornbread our little group likes the best, but the best cornbread ever by popular and expert acclaim.
It can’t be easy to come up with fresh headlines about sheet-pan dinners day in and day out, but food is intractably non-virtual. With food, I firmly believe that puffery doesn’t work. The proof is, you know, in the pudding. The chatter about a new movie or hit single might persuade us to jump on the bandwagon and love or hate it more than we would have if we’d come to it cold. But no headline in the world can make a sheet cake taste incredible if it’s really just average. For that transformation, you’d need a dozen special occasions, a home cook, and all the people who shared it. So just give me the recipe. I can handle it from there.