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Upstart startups vs. veterans: Who has the best recipes?
"What this comes down to is a battle between old and new epistemologies, which is a fancy word for how we know things," said Sherman, author of the forthcoming "Invention of the Modern Cookbook" (Greenwood, May 2010). "Food52 believes that knowledge, especially culinary knowledge, comes from the bottom, from the people. Whereas Cook's believes it comes from the top, from the experts."
Some might call Food52's approach inclusive. To others, it is loosey-goosey and anathema. "The main benefit for someone trying one of our recipes is that they have someone to walk them through the recipe and provide them hand-holding," said Jack Bishop, editorial director of America's Test Kitchen, which publishes Cook's Illustrated. "You could argue that that's the great trend in home cooking. People's expectations have gone up -- everyone thinks they can be on 'Top Chef' -- but they are starting with less experience than previous generations. That's why we've been so successful."
Take the Cook's entry for the chewy sugar cookie. After dozens of successful batches were made in the test kitchen, a significant number of the Friends of Cook's found the cookies greasy. The Cook's team realized that many testers, who were measuring by volume instead of weight, weren't using enough flour. (Previous Cook's tests had shown that a cup of flour can range in weight from 4.2 ounces to 5 ounces, depending on the cook.) The solution: Slightly reduce the amount of butter to compensate for the variation in the flour that cooks might use. The recipe was once again sent to readers. Problem solved.
That kind of reader interaction undermines the idea that Cook's is a top-down, we-know-better-than-you system, Bishop said. "The myth is that we are experts working in a vacuum in a test kitchen, and they're the crowd voting to come up with what's best. Neither is what is really happening. Amanda and Merrill are editors who are choosing things and pushing them forward for the crowd to vote on. There's a test kitchen there. And if we had published the recipe that [the tester] had first come up with, it wouldn't have worked."
Hesser and Stubbs disagree. Cook's Illustrated relies "on their users for approval of their work, to let the editors know whether or not the recipes they created in the Cook's Illustrated test kitchen are working in home kitchens. We turn this inside out," Hesser said. "People from all over send in their recipes, and then we and our community determine the best of them."
Readers will have the chance to weigh in on May 5 on Slate, which has agreed to host and certify the vote. For many, the choice may be less about theoretical models and processes than about trust developed over time. If Cook's recipes consistently work for readers, they will use them no matter how they were developed. The same is true for Food52.
"You and the 'new media' types are not so much at odds as you think," a Cook's reader, Tim Martin, commented on Kimball's initial post about the challenge. The winners are the editors who "collectively have proven your worth by producing so much useful content. . . . That, I think, is the beauty of the new world. We, the readers . . . become curators of the best information."
Which is another way of saying that every day, all over the world, recipe smackdowns are taking place. Votes are being cast at the dinner tables, where they really count. Whether Cook's or Food52 claims victory, a good recipe will win fans ¿ and, these days, live forever in cyberspace.