Sunday, November 16, 2008

Hopkinson, Cookstr, and Recipe Links

It is time for another installment of musings and recipe links.

spices 1

Hopkinson and "mindless innovation"
My brain hit pause-and-spin when I read in NYTimes' piece on Simon Hopkinson: "he is driven nearly mad by carelessly peeled potatoes, badly washed lettuce and what he views as mindless innovation. 'Why on earth would anyone put cumin in mint sauce for lamb, or a Caesar dressing on bibb lettuce?' he asked, wincing in genuine pain. 'There’s no reason for it.'”

No reason for it? How exactly does Hopkinson think that our flavor combinations emerged in the first place? Did mirepoix emerge from Zeus' thigh like Athena? Or perhaps innovation emerged via casual collisions on ancient street corners: "Hey you got your honey in my yogurt!" "No, you got your yogurt in my honey!" (I wonder how many people have seen the Reeses Pieces candy ad to which I refer)

Rules of flavor have emerged through trial and error over centuries. With trial, comes error! It might be bad, but don't question the why. In ancient times, "fusion" happened through military expansion and today it continues via travel and trade. I do not believe that the door has been closed on originality or food innovation, either through flavor experimentation or today's molecular gastronomy investigations.


cookbooks

Cookstr & Online Recipes
The other week, the NYTimes also had an article on Cookstr, a new recipe website being started by a former publishing exec which pulls in recipes from the cookbook stars and in doing so hopes to sell more books.

I am firmly in the camp that the Internet, and social media in particular, sells more books. Cookbooks are a purchase of desire, not necessity. If it was the latter, all you would need is a copy of How To Cook Everything, or Joy of Cooking, or The Cook's Companion if you are down-under, and you would have more than enough to eat well. I believe that the blogosphere (and its hugely-increased word of mouth dynamic) is one of the strongest marketing channels for cookbooks. I have bought numerous books because bloggers I like have tried and shared recipes, and in doing so raved about a book. Word of mouth works because of trust; trust emerges through time and relationships, even tenuous ones. It means a lot more than a review from a stranger on Amazon.com.

While there are many places for recipes online, people still want to feel like they are making a "safe" bet before they labor over a stove, and nothing screams reputation more than a big name. I believe that Cookstr will do well and carve out a place for itself.

Looking ahead, I wonder if Cookstr be able to control the impulse to "shut down" the recipe sharing that goes on in the blogosphere. A natural inclination might be to become the "exclusive" source for their authors, or fight modifications like that misguided attempt by Cook's Country earlier this year. Over the last several years, traditional media, PR and marketing has been fearful, controlling, and at times even threatening to social media, but it is a bit like trying to stop the tide from coming in (not to mention an excellent exercise in how to alienate your customer base).

I think that Cookstr will be wise to embrace and incorporate social media into their planning and product. Like any startup, no doubt they shall begin small, but over time we shall see if Cookstr's founder, or his consultants, really understands this new medium he is embracing. I will note that Jamie Oliver did not come across well in his quote in the article. It smacked of arrogance and a refusal to acknowledge that his recipes come from a deep foundation of recipe sharing and evolution, but I'm going to give Jamie the benefit of the doubt since he seems like such a down-to-earth bloke and the wrong soundbites, out of context, can make anyone sound terrible.

Musings and misgivings aside, I look forward to Cookstr's launch and am hopeful that they will be an excellent online resource.


Recipe Links
All that talking and finally some links! Here are some of my favorite posts from the last several weeks. I seem to be pie crazy at the moment!

11 comments:

Will said...

Thanks for the great post on Cookstr. I was really pleased to see your comments. Yes, yes, yes -- we will be embracing social media. We won't be introducing comments and community until a month or two after launch (we are indeed a bootstrapped startup, so are introducing features one at a time). But we are committed both to developing our own community and to working with established and emerging sites and communities. We have some ideas we are excited to test with regard to this. And we are really looking forward to listening, too, and hearing what people want.

I'm also really glad that you, too, believe that this will help sell more cookbooks. You can't "sample" a cookbook by flipping through it in a store. You can only sample by trying to make something, as you point out. We want the site to celebrate the long tail of cookbook authors and chefs -- and help people discover new talents and books. And it's also really important to us to celebrate cookbook authors -- and not only chefs, who get the lion's share of attention these days. Julia Child was a cookbook author -- not a chef.

We go live Tuesday or Wednesday. I hope you will let us know what you think.

Will Schwalbe
Founder, Cookstr

Daily Spud said...

I couldn't agree more with your comments on innovation and the rules of flavour.

Ultimately, all food is fusion. Can you think of Indian cuisine without chilies? That was an innovation that came about when the Portuguese spice traders brought chilies to India from South America. A fusion involving 3 continents, no less! And so it goes, ad infinitum.

(That particular example springs to mind because I'm reading Lizzie Collinghams book "Curry" on the history of same right now, so I have chilies on the brain :) )

Giff said...

re: Will, thanks for dropping by. Nice to see you have a Google feed set up for "Cookstr"! (that's how I assume you spotted the post). Great to hear that you are committed to social media (and I certainly know what it is like to bootstrap and take one step at a time).

I also love your intention of celebrating the long tail of cookbooks. That's what online marketplaces are great for. I look forward to trying the site next week.

re: Daily Spud, I didn't know that about chiles coming from South America. There is so much fascinating history wrapped up in food. Some of the cross-cultural nexus points like Provence, the south of Spain, and New Orleans are really interesting.

kat said...

I don't understand why it drives someone crazy when people experiment with flavor combinations & tastes, just seems silly to me.

I truly believe people are more likely to buy a cookbook if they can try a recipe or two from it. I posted an adaptation of a recipe from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day & quite a few people have purchased it from the Amazon link on my site.

I'm glad my Apple, Bacon & Cheddar Tart peaked your interest! We're cooking one of your recipes that this week...

Sarah said...

Very thought-provoking post. In this trademarked world, recipes seem to fall into a gray area (I remember the dust-up between Cook's Illustrated and Alosha's Kitchen a few months back). The potential for innovation is part of what makes cooking exciting, though. If someone could limit access to a particular recipe, would we benefit? Would the "author" of the recipe? I doubt it; a recipe only has value when someone cooks with it or is inspired to create something new.

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

Oh I'm definitely in teh camp that you need to experiment with different food combos. If it doesn't work, don't do it again. The only thing I take issue with is cooks who think they need to throw every seasoning in their kitchen into one dish (such as what one or two FN personalities who shall not be named like to do).

I remember the commercial well, except you got your candy mixed up. It was for Reeses's Peanut Butter cups. The Reeses Piecs commerical was, "Imagine your surprise, when you realize (spoken: "WOW some difference) Reese's peanut butter flavor inside.

Yes, I have an ironclad memory for the most irrelevant information, but I can never find my keys.

Giff said...

Hi Sarah
The US copyright office explains as follows:

"Mere listings of ingredients as in recipes, formulas, compounds, or prescriptions are not subject to copyright protection. However, when a recipe or formula is accompanied by substantial literary expression in the form of an explanation or directions, or when there is a combination of recipes, as in a cookbook, there may be a basis for copyright protection."

So lists of amounts - no. Descriptions - yes. Law aside, it is also good manners if an author is inspired by a recipe to always credit the source.

That cooks' country / cooks illustrated thing was crazy if you ask me.

--

(dis)order cook
you are totally right, I was spacing out when I wrote that. Of course it was the peanut butter cups! Glad someone got what I was referring to! :)

Zen Chef said...

Thank God for innovation! If it wasn't for innovation we wouldn't have chocolate souffl├ęs today. That would be really sad. I do have mixed feelings about molecular gastronomy, the problem these days is that young Ferran Adria wannabes learn about sodium alginate before the foundations of classic cooking and that results in some pretty scary things sometimes.

Other than that, I was crazy enough to start-up and invest in an avant-garde dessert a few years ago. I lost all my money! Haha. Long story.. Good concept/bad people.

That Cookstr venture sounds very exciting. Can't wait to check it out. They're surely watching you. Haha.

Zen Chef said...

I meant to say 'avant-garde dessert *bar*'. Sorry!

bee said...

isn't it interesting how some folks like to put things in straitjackets when cooking is all about innovation and cultural mingling? i have a firned who won't serve x with y because x is north indian and y is south indian. pffft to that.

Andrea said...

I completely agree. After I read all of that fuss by Cook's Country I was kind of shocked because of all the free publicity they're getting. I can safely say my cookbook collection has been built up in no small part through recommendations from the blogging world. Great piece! I'm loving rooting through your archives, by the way. This is a wonderful blog!