Opinion: Faking It
The Annual Conference session "Bloggers & Marketers: Crafting a Rewarding Alliance" raised the ire of one food journalist
By Amy Reiley
Those of you who know me probably had a certain expectation when you saw I wrote a blog post called “Faking It.” (For those of you who don’t already know, I should probably add here that I’m noted as an authority on culinary aphrodisiacs.) So you see where the mind might go with a title like the one above. But that kind of faking it is old news. I’m writing this post to address a new trend that’s been fast to infiltrate the culinary world.
When I attended my first Annual Conference this year, I was more interested in connecting with other professionals in our field than in focusing on the education aspect of the seminars. However, one seminar I attended gave me far more of an eye-opening education than I could have ever dreamed.
It was on a bit of a lark that I signed up for "Bloggers & Marketers: Crafting a Rewarding Alliance." Although like many professional food writers, I maintain a blog (The Aphrodisiac Queen), I do not consider, nor ever refer to myself as a blogger. However, the seminar description mentioned monetizing and, as the editorial director of a well-established online magazine, EatSomethingSexy.com, I was interested in seeing if these strategies could apply to our business. To say that the information discussed was jaw dropping would be an understatement. I think I spent the next three hours with my jaw dangling somewhere between my knees and China.
What the seminar quickly revealed was that major as well as small, well-respected organizations in the culinary business (like Kraft, the Got Milk? campaign, Kitchenaid, etc.) are contacting high profile food and lifestyle bloggers to endorse products, create recipes, photograph dishes made with the company’s products, and conduct giveaways for reasonably substantial financial gain.
Sitting in the seminar listening to several highly respected marketers discuss the kinds of relationships they develop with bloggers, I could feel a negative current ripple through the air. For those of you who weren’t there, the majority of attendees were professional journalists, recipe developers, publishers, home economists, and editors. It was clear to me that the general feeling in the room was one of shock, discomfort, and if I’m being completely honest, probably a little jealousy. And, trust me; I threw my emotional lot in with the majority.
In addition to the marketing representatives on the panel, there were a couple of food bloggers. (At one point I wondered if they were about to be lynched—luckily, we behind-the-desk food types tend to be a peaceful lot.) When asked to talk specific monetary amounts, both the marketers and bloggers on the panel suddenly grew shy. One marketer mentioned a blogger not in attendance turning down her client because said blogger doesn’t accept less than $500 to develop and photograph a unique recipe. The test kitchen director from a major appliance company seated to my left looked at me with the same shocked expression I’m sure was painted across my mug and said, “that’s not exactly a lot.” I agreed, wondering how, depending on the ingredients, you could possibly develop and test a recipe and still make enough money for the hours of work to be worthwhile for much less. …And then I got my answer. The recipes aren’t tested.
Certainly, we could debate how much testing is enough. The test kitchen policy for my cookbook publishing company, Life of Reiley, is that the final recipe must be tested three times in the kitchen, then pass the test by a minimum of two home cooks (sometimes three depending on the recipe’s complexity) before it’s approved. If something doesn’t work out with just one of the home cooks, we go back to the start and totally retest. I know many of you test much more. I have a friend who, as an intern, once tested a cinnamon roll recipe 100 times before it was deemed fit for publication by America’s Test Kitchen. But whatever your testing policy, I know that we can all agree on the importance of ensuring that the experience of making a dish goes smoothly for a home cook.
It shocks me that some of our industry’s biggest and brightest companies are willing to farm out this kind of work to home cooks, whose skill in recipe development and writing haven’t been proven–and, at least in the case of the examples discussed at the seminar, without any control over how well the recipes have been tested. The bloggers are, essentially, faking it. And then marketers are sharing these recipes with the public—and paying hobby cooks for the kind of skilled work most of us have spent a career developing. I also can’t help but question to what extent do the companies check to ensure the resulting recipes aren’t plagiarized from professional sources. The most important message I got from the seminar was that we, the professional journalists, researchers, home economists, recipe developers, food stylists, and photographers are getting aced out of much needed work in our chosen field by stay-at-home moms and accountants with a cooking hobby.
It would be completely unfair to say that all the bloggers reaping the benefits of these arrangements aren’t qualified or don’t posses a unique set of skills deserving of the leap from Wordpress to notoriety (The Pioneer Woman comes to mind). But, in general, this trend is a glaring example of what many have complained is a general “dumbing down” of the culinary profession, particularly food journalism. At a time when legendary publications like Gourmet are shuttered, it makes my skin crawl a little to think that advertising dollars that could have helped sustain high quality food writing and recipe development, (not just Gourmet, but the great food writing and stunning photography newspapers and other magazines have lost to cutbacks), is going to people with a hobby and probably too much time on their hands.
I agree that everyone in the culinary world needs to make a living however they can—it gets harder every day! And I can see from a marketer’s perspective why it would be smart, from both a PR as well as a financial standpoint, to hire someone with a following who will work for a modest sum. But the food professional side of me is outraged. The work of great recipe developers, food stylists and photographers, and, of course, food journalists are skills, crafts honed through years of education and/or apprenticeship. If this trend continues, we’ll all be out of work. But, setting personal feelings aside, what is much worse is how this hurts the consumer. Until now, consumers have been treated to professionally created recipes, photographs, and fact-checked information on food. If this trend continues, quality communications from the food world to the consumer will be a thing of the past. Don’t we all deserve more?
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Photo @ Boaz Yiftach, used with permission.