Future of Food Publishing

Fruit EditedThis post originally appeared in the Champlain College Publishing Initiative blog – check them out for thoughts about the future of the publishing industry.

Searching for recipes online has become popular in one very surprising way: It’s a great tool for teaching digital literacy. It makes sense. For adult learners who haven’t used the Internet much, and who aren’t too sure if they want to start now, these searches are the hooks to get them engaged. The lesson that the digital literacy crowd takes from this phenomenon is that classes should lead with something fun. The lesson that publishers can take from it is that food writing is a gateway into new technology.

Okay, it takes a few steps to see how this would all work out, but let’s start with the basic recipe search and go on from there.

You know the search I’m talking about — type the name of a dish ingredient into any search engine and you’ll get back enough free recipes to fill a whole cookbook. But within this quantity of information, there are some limitations:

  • The sites that usually show up at the top of the search list are places like The Food Network or AllRecipes.com that offer simple and reliable recipes. That’s great. But “simple” can be a code word for a little bit boring, or not very authentic, or something I already know from my Joy of Cooking.
  • Blog posts offer more spark – they’re set up to have their own personalities and that can lead to original ideas, usually with interesting stories. But unlike the Food Network-type sites, their recipes can be unreliable (not all of them, some of them).
  • Browsing through recipes online is usually a logical progression of links based on your search pattern. That works if you know what you’re craving. Except I usually don’t know, and I rely on thumbing idly through a cookbook, looking for something to catch my fancy.

We can get around these shortcomings in some ways. For example, my biggest concern is the boring and/or not-authentic factor. I happen to be easily bored and like to eat weird things. But there are lots of other reasons why someone would want to look beyond standard recipe-search fare. Immigrants or first-generation Americans want to find recipes for the foods they or their parents remember from home. Older cooks are interested in having food just like it was in 19-whenever. Kids might be interested in what dinner tasted like for their great-grandparents – just to name a few examples.

When I want to really get down to the business of cooking something interesting, then I go to Million Short. Million Short is not designed for cooks, it’s simply a search engine that knocks out the top million (or 100,000, or 10,000, etc.) most popular websites. Think about it as indie searching – you get the quirky stuff.

When you use Million Short to search for foods from a specific country or region, the result is a lot of “food from home”-style blogs that prize authenticity above all else. The only note of caution is that it doesn’t hurt to cross check some of these recipes against each other if you have doubts about the accuracy of the instructions.

Million Short is one modification to a familiar online tool to get home cooks new and interesting information. We can take that one step further to look at tools that have been around for a while, but are just now becoming available to your average computer user.

One of these tools is the virtual meeting. Once upon a time, you needed special equipment for a group to interact via remote video. Later, simpler services became available for businesses to use. Now, it’s easy for anyone to convene virtually — there’s no special equipment to buy or expensive software programs to download. Google+ Hangouts is a platform that lets people use their webcams to interact in a private virtual meeting, or in a virtual meeting that’s broadcast publicly for anyone to watch. The food-loving world quickly took up this tool for their own use, organizing informal, virtual cooking classes in their home kitchens. The professional world wasn’t far behind. Now, home cooks can pay ChefHangout.com to access virtual classes from master chefs.

Another tool that’s just starting to become commonly available is multimedia publishing. We’ve seen websites that embed video, audio, pictures, and text, but it’s been difficult to publish e-books this way. New platforms like Atavist are changing this with multimedia books for e-readers (e.g. iPads, Kindle, Nook, Kobo). Atavist is a startup that both publishes its own material and offers tools for self-publishing. Their nonfiction integrates text, pictures, audio, video, maps, timelines, and online annotations.

Multimedia books could well get their broadest following when food writers start taking real advantage of the platform. I predict an explosion of cookbooks with videos of techniques, links to the science behind each step, maps of a cuisine’s birthplace, links to suppliers of hard-to-find ingredients, and some basic audio to get us in the mood – sounds of a summer picnic, a whistling kettle, a sizzling steak, ice cubes rattling in a cocktail shaker.

We can take our line of thinking about technology one step further from basic (search engines), through technologies now entering into popular use (virtual meetings, multimedia production), to technologies that are available, but are several stages of development away from use by the average consumer.

Printing in food is one example of this kind of technology. You may have seen the edible pictures for cake decorating, where you can make a photo image appear on a thin sheet of icing. The nearest large grocery store likely has this in their bakery. Well, 2-D printing can happen with a range of foodstuffs, not just sugar.

Actual 3-D printing is an even more exciting possibility. To go into three dimensions, machines load in an ink that can be extruded in thin lines according to a computer-generated plan that details the dimensions of the final object. Plastic is a common ink, but food can be one too. The machine would lay down something like bread dough in the shape of an octopus – a trick that’s been used to demonstrate the process. The Huffington Post offers a somewhat-long video demonstrating the process of 3-D food printing posted here.

When you think about the steps of making a technology like printing in food into something that’s generally useful, not just a nifty trick, there’s a role for publishers to play. We need the engineers to produce the technology and the businesspeople to sell it, but someone is going to have to help the average person understand and explore its potential. Why not a food writer or a cookbook author?

Food writing is a particular kind of subject – one that lends itself to new platforms (like the multimedia cookbook) and also one that draws consumers into using that technology. It’s literally trendsetting. . . and who doesn’t want to be a giant step ahead of everyone else?

Resources for Exploring Further:

  • Million Short – Search engine for getting past the most popular sites to find the recipes you’ve never heard of
  • Creatavist – Atavist tool that lets anyone publish easy-to-assemble multimedia books.
  • Splendid Table Stories – A quick way to test whether a blog recipe is well written (here) and an interview on the Google+ Hangouts for cooking (here)
  • James Beard Awards – Showing off the best of all different kinds of food writing, including online
  • 3-D Food Printing –I wrote a Vermont Public Radio commentary on this topic (here), and can’t get enough of the food technology TED Talk by Homaro Cantu and Ben Roche (here)
  • iPads in the Kitchen – If we’re going to use the Internet as a giant cookbook, there are some practical issues. Like food in the keyboard. I’m particularly fond of this TechHive article explaining how to make a previous all-purpose iPad into a permanent kitchen tool.
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