One slow and sunny summer day, I spent a blissfully pandemic-free afternoon scouring the internet for a recipe for golden rod cake. As I clicked on cooking blog after cooking blog, scrolling through recipe after recipe in a fruitless search for this most obscure of all archaic cakes, a question suddenly occurred to me: Why are recipe posts on food blogs so obscenely long?
Why not find out? I wondered. After all, I was only looking for a golden rod cake recipe so I could waste time snarking in blog form about a badly written pulp novel I’d wasted days reading. What were a few more minutes when I’d already wasted hundreds — nay, thousands — in my life thus far?
A rabbit-hole riddled internet search ensued, and the first thing I discovered was that this issue is not new.
“Why does every online recipe begin with the preface to a personal memoir?” Slate writer April Glaser plaintively wondered back in 2017. “The more people do this, the more formulaic it feels, eventually becoming perfunctory.”
In 2018, Rekha Shankar at The New Yorker satirized the trend in an article titled “If You Want My Blueberry-Muffin Recipe, You Must Read This Crazy-Long Preamble First.”
In 2019, Chloe Bryan of Mashable acknowledged that the chore of wading through hundreds of words before arriving at the promised recipe was the fate of food blog readers past, present and probably future. “Every so often, someone will act very angry online because a recipe they clicked on has ‘too much text’ … many (if not most) food bloggers write long narratives preceding their recipes.”
By 2020, there was nothing to do but rail impotently against the lengthy lead-ins. “[Readers] don’t want to hear about how chickpeas were your childhood dog’s favorite food, or how a particular pasta dish in a small town outside Rome led to a brief but fiery love affair. They want the facts. They want the ingredients and the amounts and the instructions, and that’s it!” Alison Roman declared in The New York Times.
These preambles, also called headnotes, are now inescapable. They’re intrinsic to the cooking blog format. Fans call them authentic, relatable and intimate. Detractors call them self-indulgent, flowery, irrelevant and cloying.
Why the disparity? And if they aren’t universally loved …
Why do food bloggers write so much?
Cooking blogger Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen jumped to her own defense back in February 2019, writing on Twitter, “It’s mostly women telling these stories. Congratulations, you’ve found a new, not particularly original, way to say “shut up and cook.”
A year later, Rebecca Onion of Slate half-heartedly concurred with the implied sexism at play. “Every joke, with few exceptions, about the kind of headnote people just despise centers around a woman’s boring domestic life: a woman saying annoying things about her ‘hubs’ and children, telling a dumb story about her dog, or rhapsodizing clumsily about her sponsors’ products. … Some of the staying power of headnote hate has to be attributed to misogyny — even though some notable headnote critics have been women.”
But if the ongoing backlash against pre-recipe storytelling were down to simple misogyny — something I adore pointing out to interested and uninterested strangers and loved ones alike who have the misfortune to entire my orbit whenever I identify it — then riddle me this: Why aren’t stereotypically “masculine” blog genres known for writing long, meandering introductory essays with impunity? Genres like, say, search engine optimization for blogs?
Neil Patel, the bloggers at Moz, and the writers of HubSpot do not write long-winded, tenderhearted essays about how they unlocked the secrets of SEO one frigid morning while tromping through the woods of northern Wisconsin with a shotgun cradled in one arm and a Lenovo ThinkPad cradled in the other. Their readers don’t seem to want deeply personal musings about how they were scrolling through the Google Ads Keyword Planner when suddenly they came upon a whitetail deer — a massive ten-point buck that stood, silent and noble, in a beam of cold sunlight. Their blog subscribers aren’t charmed to read that this was the moment when they realized that, back home in the urban wilderness of San Francisco/Seattle/Brooklyn, Little Dude and Big Boy were growing up. They would be men soon, hunting their own bucks and optimizing their own blogs for search engines, and in that moment, as the whitetail turned and vanished into the forest, the answer came to them: long-tail keywords.
This isn’t a gendered issue. It’s an audience issue.
Does anyone actually read food blogs?
This isn’t to say tech bloggers don’t write rambling introductions to their posts. They just ramble in a different way. Back when I worked as a corporate copywriter, I myself produced rambling tech-industry posts; in order to do so, I studied the blogs of many, many competitors.
Their headnotes all tend to follow a single, basic outline:
- State a universal problem or question we all can relate to.
- Establish that I, the blogger, too have suffered/wondered about the same thing.
- Offer a reassuring promise that I have the answer. I can help you!
Then a few paragraphs elaborating upon the first two items typically ensue, with item three (the “Just gimme the recipe!” of this scenario) at last addressed hundreds of words later, after the reader has scrolled past several newsletter sign-up popups and offers of free downloadables created solely to cull email addresses for marketing purposes.
“Recipes are the listicles of the food world,” writes The Guardian’s Adam Liaw. “Both are short, incomplete collections of vaguely interesting but not entirely useful information designed for ease of consumption, but which ultimately convey very little of the knowledge required for their purpose.” So, just like “10 SEO Tips for Your Food Blog,” they must be padded, and padded heavily.
Interestingly, the Number One item on the Buzzfeed’s listicle, “11 Bullshit Things About Online Recipes,” is “The author tells you their life story before getting to the actual recipe.”
The truth of the matter is, we all have to navigate past a bunch of introductory garbage before we get what we want if what we want is free. Not just online, but in the real world. We all must plod for hours through the frosty bracken of the Wisconsin woods before we stumble upon that perfect deer, which Wifelet will turn into venison burgers that she learned to cook one magical summer in Italy when the sun shimmered off the bright cerulean water of the Mediterranean as she arrived via vaporetto, her senses instantly overwhelmed with the scent of basil, oregano and sweaty gigolos.
Whether this sort of introductory drivel is read or scrolled past, it serves a very important purpose.
How do food bloggers make money?
The length of a recipe blog post very often dictates how much money can be made off of it. The headnote is prime real estate for stuffing in keywords to improve the blog’s SEO, which will boost readership and the amount of money the blogger can charge for ads and sponsored posts. Writes Chloe Bryan at Mashable, “Recipe bloggers want to catch the attention of the illusive Google algorithm — and, ideally, land their recipe on the coveted first page — so they must demonstrate ‘authority’ in their field. This means more comprehensive content, which is really hard to pull off with a concise recipe alone. (Tons of people will be using the phrase ‘apple crumble,’ for example, but only you can write your own story about it.)”
More words also mean more space for the ads themselves, allowing the blogger to cram in far more digital adverts than they could if all the post contained was a brief ingredient list and cooking instructions. This is also why they often include a gazillion near-identical photos of the food in question.
But bloggers don’t just make money the old-fashioned way.
“The blog-style recipe headnote is trying to forge connection with a dedicated audience,” notes Rebecca Onion at Slate. “The goal, or at least part of the goal, is to build a kind of community around food.”
Remember when I mentioned those newsletter sign-ups and free downloadables in the tech blogs? Cooking blogs are after your email address, too. If you trust the food blogger, if you feel a connection to him or her, you’re much more likely to give up your personal information. Your personal information will allow them to sell things to you. Like exclusive courses, bonus recipes, cooking retreats, and branded merchandise.
Why won’t you just get to the recipe?
I’ve never been good at writing reams of self-assuredly relatable, tenderly sentimental, infuriatingly self-indulgent fluff (that last item is the lie of my “two truths and a lie” challenge).
If I could — and believe me, I’ve tried — I’d probably be a food blogger myself. I’d get all saccharine and misty-eyed about my memories of foods gone by. I’d try to convince you that I am an enviable, profound, deeper-than-thou soul while shilling recipes any oaf can find on essay-devoid, all killer no filler Allrecipes.com.
But, alas, I have but one recipe to give. And that’s the recipe for golden rod cake, which you’re going to love. I guarantee it! CLICK HERE FOR RECIPE