Amanda Hesser photo by Sarah Shatz
Amanda Hesser spent exhaustive years researching and testing recipes for the definitive New York Times cookbook. These days, the food writer and editor is sharing the work, the fun, and the credit, at “Food52,” the online cooking community she founded with business partner Merrill Stubbs. At Food52, anyone who wants to submit or test an original recipe can participate in weekly recipe contests (this week: Your Best Canned Fish Recipe), take advantage of a database of well-tested reader recipes, ask and answer questions on a cooking hotline (some marked with an “urgent” tag because the poster is in the middle of making dinner), and participate in crowdsourced cookbooks (one Food52 book has been published, the next is in the works). There’s also a holiday survival guide app.
Hesser will speak at Seattle Arts and Lectures on March 8, and we touched base with her in advance to chat about changes in the ways we approach recipes and cooking, about why we need recipe testers, and about the most interesting cake she’s eaten lately.
So, first, how did one authorative 4.5-pound institutional cookbook led to a crowdsourced cookbook and a cooking site where anyone can participate? (Current favorites include “Absurdly Addictive Asparagus” a sausage-kale tart, and “heavenly oatmeal-molasses rolls”.)
It doesn’t sound intuitive, but “One book definitely led to the next,” she said.
When Hesser put a notice in the paper asking readers for their favorite New York Times recipes, “I got a tsunami of responses” from people who had been cooking from the food section for years or decades, making special recipes part of family traditions or tweaking them to their personal style.
“There’s a social fabric attached to these recipes…they had their own lives after they were published,” she said. Also interesting: The recipes that people requested the most (Exhibit A: These pancakes) tended to originate from home cooks, not professional food writers or chefs. And it seemed there was a niche for those home cooks that wasn’t being filled.
“Despite Americans’ huge and growing interest in food, you didn’t hear a lot from home cooks. They didn’t really have a voice in the conversation,” Hesser said.
Food blogs were a start in that conversation, and an amazing one, yet “they are kind of isolated,” Hesser said. You visit them one by one, and they’re run by people who invest tremendous amounts of time in writing, photographing, and continually updating. How many additional people “know tons about food or are great cooks,” but just wanted to share a few recipes or ideas on occasion with like-minded cooks?
Food52 gives a formal read-through to every submission, but also tests a lot of the recipes it gets — a real rarity in these days when not even every published cookbook has been pre-proven reliable. Why actually make selected recipes rather than let users try them at their own risk? For one thing, there’s only so much that eyeballing a recipe can tell you, Hesser said. A trained eye can find red flags, like a missing ingredient or a wacky proportion, but sometimes it just takes cooking a dish to be surprised by how well (or badly) an ingredient or technique works out. “We’re often looking for these little things, a new idea or way of doing something that seems promising and distinguishing.”
Also, what are lists of recipes worth without some voice and direction? Paging through 200 random search results for “chicken and mushrooms,” say, won’t easily lead you to something really interesting and great. “If you’re going to commit to cooking dinner, you want it to be worth your while.”
Such issues are a big change from Hesser’s former life on staff at The New York Times, a position she left to pursue “an interesting project” startup and Food52.
“I was going to call my (Arts and Lectures) talk “How I Became Not A Writer”…” she said, only half-joking.
Her role has changed right along with the way people approach cooking and recipes and kitchen inspiration.
“Even as we’re pushing forward, we’re actually turning back to the past, where cooking was much more social and we learned from each other, from people close to us. We moved very far away from that for a long time,” she said.
“Strangely, through technology, we’re moving back to that.”
Oh, and one of the more interesting things she’s eaten herself lately? It’s from Food52, natch, an Italian chocolate and Cabernet Sauvignon cake — not one she initially expected to be a favorite, given the surprising 3/4 cup of red wine in the ingredient list. But something about the way the flavors combined in the recipe was “completely wonderful and really interesting.” That’s the sort of surprise that you find as part of a big community where people share what they enjoy.
Interested in hearing more? Tickets to her Seattle appearance are over here.