Inventing Broccoli Casserole

Chris Kimball's Fight Against Bad Recipes (from his blog)

In a recent episode of Splendid Table on NPR, Lynne Rossetto had as a guest the food critic Craig Goldwin. The topic of the discussion centered around the difficultly finding reliable web sources for cooking tips and recipes. Christopher Kimball, from America’s Test Kitchen, had recently written about the demise of Gourmet Magazine, a source for reliable recipes and cooking tips, pointing out that if one were to google for a broccoli casserole recipe, the results would be very disappointing:

Google “broccoli casserole” and make the first recipe you find. I guarantee it will be disappointing. The world needs fewer opinions and more thoughtful expertise — the kind that comes from real experience, the hard-won blood-on-the-floor kind. I like my reporters, my pilots, my pundits, my doctors, my teachers and my cooking instructors to have graduated from the school of hard knocks.

From Cook's Country

Goldwin took up Kimball’s challenge, choosing the very first result on, a kind of Wikipedia for cooks. Not only was the recipe inadequate, but also unsafe, telling the cook to throw the chicken and other ingredients together in the oven, not specifying whether or not the chicken was raw. Rossetto defended such sites, pointing out how in today’s world, cooks can actually talk to each other, and it is not Google’s job to vet information. Kimball wisely points out in response, that to write a recipe that effectively communicates to a reader is difficult, and cooks should rely on “edited” material — or what we might call “peer-reviewed”.

I want to propose that the problem here is not necessarily the burst of “opinion” overwhelming more expert forms of knowledge. Rather the problem is how our assumptions about print text are inappropriately carried over to Google. In her book outlining the “revolution of printing,” Elizabeth Eisenstein points out that print culture enabled cross-referencing between texts, more cross-cultural interchange, and “combinatory activity” that changed social and intellectual relationships (47, 49). One could say that the digital world has instituted similar shifts, and ways of reading print text do not match the new medium entirely. Print text did enable edited and peer-reviewed ways of formulating knowledge by “bringing many minds to bear on a single text” (56).

From BBC Radio

In other words, text became more like a permanent object, rather than constantly in flux (either orally or in less accurate forms of duplication). In fact, reading text as object has, in many ways, become our default mode, but this does not apply to the gushing stream of text that we call Google. It is likely that if we googled “broccoli casserole” today, a different list of recipes would come up, and the one we’ve already seen has been changed. As a cook myself, I do not use google to get a recipe, I use google to view many recipes around which I can invent my own. I want to see how other broccoli casserole recipes have been done, using google as a space to exercise my own “combinatory activity.” I’m going to know that my chicken needs to be cooked either through dialogue with other recipes or more basic and expert sources that I have on hand. One might say that print culture created the illusion that invention happens internally and mystically, but with digital culture on the rise, invention is made visible through external means. Therefore, we should see these two types of texts interacting with each other as inventive tools, rather than merely forms of knowledge at odds with each other.

How far will you go for a good source?

I would like to use my experience researching a current project about Byzantine rhetoric in Late Antiquity as a more academic example. Googling “Byzantine rhetoric” is nearly useless, but by first building my own base of “expert knowledge” through scholars like George Kennedy and James Murphy, Google became an inventional space with which I could explore the various connections between specific people and topics of the Byzantine era. Much of the research that was necessary for my project lay several bibliographies deep. But as a scholar almost completely new to the Byzantine era, Google, along with sites like Wikipedia, were helpful in tentatively filling in gaps as I read. Obviously, I would not use these sources in a paper, but the internet became an inventional space, where I could test subjects, ideas, and other topics, creating a platform from which to spring into more in-depth research. As my first draft of this paper draws to a close, I have found a much coveted source through Google books. Wanting to read the works of Procopius of Gaza, I’ve been attempting to get a 19th century German translation, because there are no other translations in existence. I tried to order it through the library, but the book is “too big and too fragile,” so I would have to drive to Cincinnati to actually read the book. But with the new Google books for iPad, I downloaded the entire “large and fragile” book to my device. This, too me, is a definite advantage . . . but typing in Byzantine rhetoric, or even Procopius of Gaza, would never have brought me to this source. I only knew of the book through other scholarly sources. Even so, I may not have taken that “research path” if it were not for using Google as an inventive space. For me, Google and Academia work synergistically, each playing a specific role that can only be defined by invention. If a student (or a cook) has no notion of invention, then these roles are likely to slip out of sync and give you either a bad paper or a bad tummy ache..

It strikes me that this shift in technology demands the recovering of invention, not just in composition, but in all of life . . . yes, even cooking. I’m not really trying to take sides on the Wikipedia vs Expert fight. In a way, both Rossetto and Goldwin are right. Rather, in my experience, students and scholars need to learn how the two work together to produce knowledge. This is an important role of rhetoric, not just in the university, but in the “real world” of cooking, as well. Perhaps, then, the verb to google should mean to invent, rather than to search.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.

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