Bad news from the foodie frontlines: The apparently endless war over recipe headnotes—those introductory riffs of varying length that often appear before the “ingredients” list, chatty versions of which are a hallmark of online cooking blogs—has flared up again.
On Saturday, reporter Kathryn Watson broke a precious, too-short peace: “I hate recipes on the Internet,” she volleyed. “I do not care about your cute little story and pictures. Just tell me the ingredients and how I’m supposed to turn them into deliciousness.” The ensuing skirmish has roiled all week.
If you just got shivers of déjà vu, it’s because we had this exact fight last February, when historian Kevin Kruse tweeted, to great virality: “Hey, cooking websites! I don’t really need a thousand words about how you discovered the recipe or the feelings it evoked for you. Ingredients, steps, total time for prep and cooking. That’s it. I’m trying to feed my family. No need to curate the experience for me.” Chelsea Peretti made the same jab in November 2018, just three months after Rekha Shankar satirized the personal headnote in the New Yorker’s humor column.
By this point, it’s clear that the disagreement over the value of headnotes is an Internet Forever War. But why is this the case? What is it about a few (or many!) paragraphs of anecdote and context from a recipe’s author before her (free!) recipe that foments such intense division and durable, viral rage?
For one thing, food bloggers face the same problem all writers for the web do: context collapse. We don’t write for publications that will be read only by our subscribers, our subscribers’ houseguests, or, possibly, people waiting for a train who got hooked by a snappy coverline and shelled out for a newsstand copy. (Ah, the good old days!) The advantage of this situation is reach; the disadvantage is also reach.
The blog-style recipe headnote is trying to forge connection with a dedicated audience—a basic function of writing, and especially of writing in the internet era. The goal, or at least part of the goal, is to build a kind of community around food, rather than simply a database of ways to make it. But the tone and content appropriate for this audience-building leaves recipe bloggers open for ungenerous reading and sniping from fly-by browsers. As researchers Elzbieta Lepkowska-White and Emily Kortright found in a 2018 study of successful female food bloggers, the ones that succeed establish “emotional attachment,” along with “trust, credibility, and professionalism,” with readers. But those posts that do such a good job connecting with longtime fans will also reach give-me-my-casserole searchers. People who followed along with Pinch of Yum’s Lindsay’s super-sad, and super-personal, birth story posts in 2017 will be reading her recipe for Instant Pot Pot Roast right alongside those who just want the facts, ma’am.
Of course, food bloggers also want to survive as small, click-dependent businesses in a crowded marketplace—how presumptuous!—and headnoting has become part of the game. After last year’s dustup, Chloe Bryan pointed out on Mashable that food bloggers are trying to convince Google’s algorithm that they have “authority” and should be returned near the top of the search results when we type in “vegetarian meatballs,” apparently without a moment to spare. Bloggers may add more content to the top of the recipe—tips, advice, or step-by-step pictures and videos (one of my own pet peeves)—to demonstrate to the Machine that theirs is a site that offers value. The headnote is also a place to insert keywords that potential readers might use to find recipes.
Bloggers know many people are annoyed about their headnotes and are annoyed right back. Julie Wampler, of the Table for Two blog, let fly in an epic May 2018 post: “The State of Blogging: It’s No Longer Fun.” “I get so many comments about, ‘I don’t care about your life, just give me the recipe,’ ” Wampler wrote. “Dude, that’s bad. I don’t even think it’s an attention span thing. I think it’s a lazy thing.” A commenter replied, proving my point about context collapse quite neatly: “I’m one of those horrid people who Just Wants a Recipe…I’m not a short attention span operant conditioned ‘millennial’: I’m someone for whom the internet is primarily an information resource, because the offline things I do don’t leave all sorts of *disposable time* for wandering the aisles of the Internet.” But a blog post with a recipe in it is always going to be a hybrid, offering information along with the option of connection. Yes, some of that charming/distracting story is there for SEO, but it’s also just the nature of the genre.
Some of the staying power of headnote hate has to be attributed to misogyny—even though some notable headnote critics have been women. Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen—a classic, and extremely successful, “here’s my story, now here’s the recipe” food blog—replied to last year’s flurry of complaints in a thread: “It’s mostly women telling these stories. Congratulations, you’ve found a new, not particularly original, way to say ‘shut up and cook.’ (I just don’t see the same pushback when male chefs write about their wild days or basically anything. Do you?)”
The replies to any of these viral anti-headnote tweets are honestly the best argument for Perelman’s theory. Reporter Olivia Nuzzi replied to Kathryn Watson: “Gotta tell you about my divorce and my sorority sisters first sorry.” Every joke, with few exceptions, about the kind of headnote people just despise centers around a woman’s boring domestic life: a woman saying annoying things about her “hubs” and children, telling a dumb story about her dog, or rhapsodizing clumsily about her sponsors’ products. God, Mom! Just let us eat our muffins in peace!
Is there any hope for moving our culture beyond this impasse? Well, if you just can’t with some lady’s chit-chat, and your scroll wheel is broken, there’s the Recipe Filter extension for Firefox, or Paprika Recipe Manager, with its handy “Save Recipe” button, or a quick control-F for “Ingredients.”
Or better still, we could engage in a little critical thinking about genre and venue. Kevin Kruse, for his part, apologized last year in a statement to Food52’s Emma Laperruque, saying that he had learned a lot about the issue since his tweet went viral. For any given web annoyance, there are reasons. Headnotes build audience, allow for expression, and connect food to life. There are better ones and worse ones, but there are better and worse tweets, too. As hacky and boring as a given “meditation on my lemon tree” headnote may be, complaining about it online is—in the blessed year of 2020—even hackier. For the love of cooking, let’s call a truce.