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The New York Times | The Joy of Wikis - Online Recipes Get E-Tweaks

September 30, 2009 • 0 Comments

AS the digital age seeps into the kitchen, it’s time to reconsider whether too many cooks spoil the broth.

Crowd-sourcing recipes — corralling a group of strangers on the Internet to create and edit a bank of recipes — is gaining popularity and investors.

The idea is that a thousand cooks can come up with a better recipe than any single chef.

Some cooks argue that the collective process strips recipes of their personality and their provenance. But backers believe they are creating a new authority for cooking: the Wikipedia of recipes.

“Food is untapped,” said Barnaby Dorfman, a former Amazon.com executive who a year ago started Foodista.com, one of a handful of recipe sites that let anyone make additions or changes. “We’re just starting to get into a phase of truly leveraging the Web as a medium for recipes and cooking knowledge.”

These sites are still young, and not as complete or reliable as a good cook might hope. But you can already get an idea of how they work and of their potential.

Take, for example, a tabouleh recipe posted by someone called “Shiftyenomis” on the recipe section of Wikia, a separate company started by the Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales. At some point, an anonymous user changed the amount of bulgur wheat to 1 1/2 cups from 1 1/2 tablespoons. Then “Blacksteallion” changed it back.

“Rloperena” jumped in, changing the bulgur back to 1 1/2 cups. Commenting that too much parsley can make the salad unpleasant, she reduced it to four cups from seven. She also added cucumber and green chili, and better directions for soaking the wheat. That was in August. No one has challenged her yet. (To make this even more confusing, readers should note that a search for “tabbouleh” will produce an entirely different recipe.)

At this rate, creating the world’s greatest collective tabouleh recipe could take years. But then again, things move fast on the Internet.

Recipe Wiki, one of 50,000 communities, or topic areas, on Wikia.com, already has 40,000 recipes and lots of information about ingredients and techniques. It began in 2005, and lately has been one of the fastest-growing areas on Wikia.com, jumping 60 percent in traffic since January.

Like Foodista.com, it has strong backing from investors, including Amazon. The site has 6.5 million unique visitors a month in the United States. For users, being part of the community is more valuable than any individual recipe. Allowing some stranger to mess with a recipe just is no big deal.

“As long as the original is up there, I don’t have a problem with people adding to it,” said Jo Stougaard, who runs the blog mylastbite.com. “We all tweak recipes.” Ms. Stougaard, from Studio City, Calif., contributes regularly to Foodista, which in turns drives traffic to her site.

One of her contributions — a “porn burger” of Spam, prosciutto and beef — was deleted because it invited too many X-rated additions. Malicious vandalism is a constant worry. Substituting body fluids for ingredients is a favorite prank. A mix of staffers and volunteers police sites to catch bad edits. I tested this, adding “one small plastic car” to the ingredient list for barbecued pork on both Foodista.com and Recipe Wiki.

Two days later I got a kind slap on the wrist from Danny at Wikia.com: “If you’re new to wikis, I know how tempting it is to try out something silly and see what happens. It’s not a big deal; I took the plastic car out, so now the BBQ Pork is going to have to call for a taxi if it wants to get anywhere. :) ”

At Foodista.com, the car was taken out of the recipe two days later by Mr. Dorfman.

Still, anyone who has used Wikipedia understands the value of information that can be collectively massaged by a wide circle of people. But are recipes the same as, say, the history of Seattle or the properties of copper?

In other words, is a recipe a fact?

“Our idea is that there is this notion of a dish which is a culturally shared idea of a recipe,” Mr. Dorfman said. And people think recipes vary more than they really do. He makes his point with apple pie. Stop a hundred people and ask what goes into an apple pie and you’ll get a predictable list of flour, apples, cinnamon and sugar. Even the variations, like whether to use butter or lard in the crust, aren’t really that different.

The advantage, lovers of the wiki model say, goes beyond the chance for the collective opinion of a crowd to create a recipe. At its best, a wiki site is like being able to call up your really smart friend who can cook every dish imaginable and knows its history.

The content is, also, free of editorial interference or commercial pressure. The model, enthusiasts say, has a unique ability to capture “the long tail” — providing useful information on a wide swath of esoteric subjects, like how to make pasta in a paper shredder. And wiki contributors often search out government agencies and obscure sources for recipes hidden in the nooks and crannies of the Internet. They even use early recipe exchange databases, like those created at Yahoo.com, to seed their sites.

It’s too soon to tell whether any of the new sites will overtake Epicurious, arguably the most popular source for recipes online. The site’s 27,000 recipes come largely from the test kitchens of Bon Appétit and Gourmet magazines, but they are rated by users. Some have hundreds of comments by cooks with varying levels of skill and dedication to following the recipe. The site also has about 114,000 recipes submitted by users, some of which are original and all of which can be rated by the masses.

Tanya Wenman Steel, editor in chief of Epicurious.com, says she is “a big believer in the democratization of recipe creation” but also thinks people like to know that a prize family recipe won’t be tampered with.

Mr. Dorfman says Foodista.com has a section where contributors can “lock down” their recipes. On other recipes, readers can track what changes were made and who made them. The same is true for the Wikia recipe site, but it’s more cumbersome to use.

For many cooks, recipes are too unique to be tampered with by a mob. The creators of a Food52.com, a new cooking site that straddles the line between cookbooks and crowd-sourcing, say wikis can lead to voiceless recipes and an industrial approach to cooking.

“We felt like there was a middle ground between the old-media, top-down approach and the completely open-ended, voiceless mass recipes you get on these big databases,” said Amanda Hesser, a former editor at The New York Times who writes about food for the Times magazine. She developed Food52.com with Merrill Stubbs, who helped Ms. Hesser on her forthcoming book of New York Times recipes.

The Food52.com goal is to create a bank of well-curated recipes from good cooks who submit recipes on a theme, like beef salad or end-of-summer cocktails, and then vote for the best.

To make an informed choice, people can cook the recipes themselves and watch Ms. Hesser and Ms. Stubbs test them in a series of videos. At the end of the year, the best recipes will become a book.

Jennifer Hess, a food blogger from Providence, R.I., was an early Food52 member. Her smoky pork burger with fennel and red cabbage slaw won the “Your Best Grilled Pork Recipe” contest. Because Food52 recipes are curated and well tested, they appeal to her more than recipes from crowd-sourced sites, she said.

“It’s nice to be judged by people who also have some chops and aren’t going to say, ‘This is wonderful’ because they are your friends, or not follow it and then leave a comment saying they hated it,” she said.

Some think a crowd shouldn’t go anywhere near a recipe. Among them is Christopher Kimball, publisher of Cook’s Illustrated magazine and host of the public television show “America’s Test Kitchen.” Crowd-sourced recipes can’t be relied upon because skills and kitchens vary too much, he said. His site’s 270,000 subscribers want recipes from a reliable kitchen.

For others, crowd-sourcing removes an intangible part of a recipe: the story behind it. Andrea Israel and Nancy Garfinkel wrote “The Recipe Club: A Tale of Food and Friendship,” a novel that traces a friendship between two women, much of which involves sharing recipes. The authors started clubs for people to share recipes and the stories behind them — about as far from anonymous recipe Web sites as you can get.

At one recent gathering in Brooklyn, a woman in her 50s brought “the dullest chicken recipe you could ever imagine,” Ms. Garfinkel recalled. Her mother had been mentally ill and never cooked. But sometimes, her grandmother did.

“This was the dish her grandmother cooked for her,” she said. “It was a recipe but it was about her loneliness and her grandmother. I made that chicken, and I tasted the story of her life.”

Even for those steeped in crowd-sourcing culture, cooking can get personal. Nicole Willson, an experienced wiki administrator who has worked on recipe sites, sometimes just improvises a stir-fry or gets a recipe off a box of pasta, or even gets real old school.

“Sometimes,” she said, “it’s easier to get out a cookbook.”

- Kim Severson

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