Despite the pressure to produce ‘crowd-pleasing’ recipes, I’ve been resistant to any sensational trends that might result in ‘dumbing-down’ my cooking. However, I’ve recently posted a series of ‘quick and easy’ recipes (30 minutes, 10 ingredients), which have unexpectedly made me think again about the hyped-up online food industry – and my own cooking.
Food blogs and their related social media sites often give the impression that they do not exist in the real world – in such a highly competitive and dynamic marketplace the sensational, quirky and extreme seem to be all that matter. You have to stand out from the crowd: take What Dad Cooked, if the Dad did the cooking in the garden shed wearing nothing more than boxer shorts and a beaver hat, the blog would surely go viral. The reality is there are lots of ‘wild-Dad’ blogs out there, all being visited by thousands of followers. It proves that the sensational, quirky and extreme are common factors in successful food blogging.
Beyond the weird and wacky, sensational can still be extreme but rather more refined. One sensational approach is to exert exaggerated control over the quality of images. A smart move when your audience is quickly swiping through streams of images on their phones. This can be as simple as a rigid choice of background colour, or producing graphic symmetries and shapes, to the highly stylized and propped photographs where food takes on the status of fine art.
The sensational can also be interpreted as specialized or niche, as in national cuisines and their variants, such as Vietnamese market food, Mexican street food, Japanese soul food, or a specific approach to food, such as gluten-free, vegan, paleo, sweet, natural, clean, raw etc. Ingredients themselves can be the subject of extreme treatment – most often expressed through limiting their number, normally no more ‘7’, after which they work their way down to ‘5’, ‘4’ and stop at ‘3’ – presumably because if you go to ‘2’, you will end up with a bowl of cereal and milk, and if you go to ‘1’, a banana. Most bloggers take ingredient restrictions very seriously, some use the format to elucidate food combining and balancing flavours, whilst others seek a greater simplicity, especially when related to limited budgets.
More and more food sites are featuring dinner for £10, £5, or £1, so it appears that the appetite for reduced budget posts might also be reflecting people’s real life. In an austerity economy, the knock-on effect for real families in actual cuts to household food budgets. Couples living in small flats with ‘studio’ kitchens cannot employ efficient food management systems without space for keeping and storing food. Further, with higher proportions of income spent on rent and commuting – there is less money available for dinner each night.
A further limitation on cooking is time. Working couples arriving home late after an exhausting day will have little inclination to spend more than half an hour making dinner. Nigel Slater’s The 30-Minute Cook and Jamie Oliver’s 30-minute and 15-minute versions of the same may pay tribute to the sensational but are also responding to people’s real need to cook more quickly and easily.
My quick and easy recipes are a genuine response to these needs. But to my surprise, far from ‘dumbing-down’ my cooking, ‘quick and easy’ recipes have challenged my abilities as a cook and pushed me to be more inventive and thoughtful. I was forced to rethink my methods of cooking; forced not to rely on my well-stocked kitchen larder; forced to break my reliance on having all the time I need. If a paella takes 25 ingredients and 1 hour to cook – what ingredients and processes can I take away to still make a tasty Spanish rice dish in half the normal time? The results have been a revelation. I’m now all in favour of this more practical and useful end of the sensational posting. What’s more, it’s making me a better cook!