The story tends to makes people snicker, but the account underlines a potential vulnerability in the world of newspapers as the industry continues to shrink: Can food editors — and the managers who control their budgets — still afford to test recipes with the same rigor as in the past?
The question is important not only to avoid judicial judgments such as the one in Chile, but also to maintain journalistic standards that readers rely uponas the Internet becomes more bloated with recipes, their provenance often unknown and their accuracy questionable.
The money required to test recipes is probably not going to drain a paper’s budget. The food editors who were willing to share their figures — even ballpark ones — threw out numbers ranging from about $1,500 a month (San Francisco Chronicle) to $200 to $700 a week in groceries (Associated Press). The Washington Post spends more than $15,000 annually on testing for the entire paper; Food section policy is to test every recipe (save for those in syndicated columns in other sections) at least once, which is done in home kitchens by Food staffers, certain Food columnists and volunteer testers.
Perhaps surprising, many of the editors contacted for this story said their recipe-testing budgets have not been targeted for reduction or elimination — at least to their knowledge. What might be more surprising, however, is that some of them had to persuade their bosses to institute recipe testing in the first place. It would seem that the era of recipe testing at newspapers is a more recent invention; old timers recall when food editors in the 1980s published recipes straight from publicists and major food manufacturers, no questions asked.
San Francisco Chronicle Food and Wine editor Michael Bauer remembers trying to persuade his supervisors at the Kansas City Star in 1980, when he became food editor there, to start testing recipes. He recalls attempting to appeal to their sense of journalistic integrity.
“As a journalist, you always go to the source, and testing recipes is a source,” Bauer remembers arguing to his superiors. “Not testing them is taking second- and third-hand opinions.” He didn’t win the argument and had to foot the bill for recipe testing himself.
In 1986, Bauer landed at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he and his colleagues have built a test kitchen and culinary complex that is an envy of the newspaper industry. “It was just something I was able to get through the years,” says Bauer. “It was always done through the back door, one small step at a time.”