The Piglet

Read The Piglet Editor and Co-Founder Discuss Days 1 and 2

February 27, 2016

Days 1 and 2 of The Piglet have come and gone, and there's a lot of talk in the comments—some great, some heart-warming, some a little cranky. What follows is a mostly unedited transcript of my gchats with Charlotte Druckman, co-founder of the Piglet and my partner in crime, to catch her up on what's happened so far. (If you're just getting up to speed, read the two judgments here.)

me: how's rosie pawstein?

charlotte: she's well. she’s currently obsessively guarding the kitchen cabinet where either a mouse once was or is. i have my special electronic death traps at the ready. waiting for it.  i love all creatures

me: except for mice

charlotte: but not city mice I KILL THEM

me: die! so now that we've established ourselves as sympathetic, caring human beings should we talk about our commenters?

charlotte:  yes yes!

me: have you read the most recent comments? so far, it seems like these are the negative cumulative points: julie [klam] doesn't like to cook, and why would we pick a judge who doesn't like to cook?

charlotte: and they don't get the pairing

me: correct, yes.

charlotte: (also they think her slamming British food was not necessary, but i liked it) (it was a sweet kind of mocking and she clearly loved the books)

me: totally! and it was a way for her to start off with some levity which, to be honest, is the whole point: death to dry cookbook reviews!

charlotte: just this idea that only professional cooks/chefs could be valid as judges of cookbooks, which up until very recently, were ONLY about home cooking and then even when it is a professional, that he or she has to do it by himself and can't have any biases about food going in is ridiculous. 

me: so that's the thing overall, i think the piglet is being misunderstood in a very large way

charlotte: me too. but i'm trying to understand why, because it wasn't misunderstood when we first started. and if anything i think we've become more sensitive to the needs of regular home cooks.

me: you think that back in 2009, people still got that the point was to have real people cooking from cookbooks, and not just chefs?

charlotte: it was very clear. when we started, it was really our way of geeking out on how much we love cookbooks, and how much we love good writing, and how much we love great criticism—and the kind of criticism that's driven by the specific point of view of its critic. we weren't looking at objectivity—that relationship between a person and her cookbook is SO TOTALLY SUBJECTIVE, because people cook differently. so having these very different people tell us about their experiences with these cookbooks and how they cook becomes a really cool way to think about how cookbooks function in the real world.

me: yes, and in a way, it makes the question "how did that book win over another?" so completely irrelevant in the piglet, because it's all about the judge's point of view and perspective and experience.

charlotte: when i understand why the person judging it liked or didn't like it, i have a better sense of whether or not i'd actually cook out of a cookbook. if someone who is afraid of baking tells me he loved a baking book, that's a pretty great endorsement.

me: okay but let's look at julie's review in that context for a second

charlotte: yes, julie's review is a great example, and brooks's is too, actually

me: so april loses, a girl and her greens loses, but it loses because julie kept returning to violet over and over. because she felt a connection to it, and it gave her a confidence

charlotte: it was a book that made her want to cook yes. and it gave her comfort—both the book itself and what the recipes yielded

me: exactly. or she kept returning to think about its recipes in relation to others she knows, loves, bakes with. but here's the thing that kills me april losing is not our call to the world for people to NOT buy or cook from or read or enjoy a girl and her greens we read so many comments that are like “okay fine, but i’ll still read x losing book,” as if to lose is to be dismissed.

charlotte: of course not. our call to the world is for people to consider buying every single book we nominated. we think they all deserve to be on peoples' kitchen shelves, depending on what sorts of things people cook at home. once they're nominated, we see them all as winners, and then the fun begins

me: there is a cookbook for everyone in this tournament, no matter who keeps advancing. julie's review is one of my personal favorites precisely because she is NOT a know-it-all cook

charlotte: what we don't do is put a book that is extremely difficult to cook from unless you're a professional in the hands of a regular person. or really, in the tournament at all. not because we think it's not a good cookbook, but we're celebrating books that are meant to be cooked from by BOTH professionals and amateurs, and this is why we include a range of judges

me: and they're written for everyone. thus, they should be tested by everyone

charlotte: YES

me: i love that she doesn't know what a spider is. if we were doing this tournament for only the people who did know, what would be the point?

charlotte: having just written a cookbook, I've become a lot more sensitive to that stuff. things you just assume everyone knows.

me: like salt varieties. tiny things a ton of very experienced cooks would just glaze over

charlotte: we'd also be doing something that's completely wrong for Food52— its amazing foundation is one of enthusiastic home cooks.

me: it makes me think about our content as a whole. like, we publish articles on how to peel a mango. we ALSO publish things on how to build a croquembouche. that's a little representative of how we approach judge selection and cookbook reviews, i think

charlotte: it's why i take umbrage when i see Food52 folks making comments about how Julie Klam shouldn't be allowed to judge

me: YUP

charlotte: or when they confuse her lack of confidence with a disdain for or dislike of cooking there is so much joy in that judgment 

me: but it's in letting that come through i think we're all very quick to judge the judges are they asking the right questions? testing the right recipes?

charlotte: i want to look at hers and Brooks's together, because there's something else in it, aside from the shared joy, that speaks to what we're doing. both of them told us exactly who they are, as cooks, from the start. Brooks taught himself so much of what he knows from cookbooks. so he's a professional, but he came to cookbooks as a student, like most people do, at home or, yes, often, in professional kitchens. And we watched Julie learn from her cookbooks. but what I loved was that we had a very clear understanding of their respective relationship to cookbooks before their judging even began. again, that allows you, as a reader, to think about how you might use those books.

me: right—and the difference in how they both approached their books speaks to the varied experiences of cookbook audiences at large

charlotte: yes.

me: we don't all read and cook and experience the same way, and that's the problem with reading a million cookbook reviews from the same author, the same tester—you get one version.

charlotte: no. and the best cookbooks are the ones that don't treat us like we do.

me: if a book can be loved in the kitchen of a comedian, and a chef, and a blogger, and a radio host THAT is saying something

charlotte: one of the reasons we started the piglet was to celebrate the cookbooks that don't fit, that don't always fall into some neat and tidy little category on the bookstore shelf, or that maybe have a lot of weird tags.  since the tournament started, the market has exploded and there's more room for things that are weirder or more specialized which is great.  but to try and critique them as though they do fall into those neat and tidy categories of old? eh. that's not so interesting to me. 

charlotte: so maybe now we have more to choose from, and maybe now we're applying our own less traditional approach to some more traditional cookbooks

me: it also means that matching them up isn't tidy anymore either. that you might find greens and senegalese food and vegan cooking all on the shelf next to each other

charlotte: either way, though, if we've done our job right, you've walked away knowing more about 16 great cookbooks and the people who stepped up to judge them.

me: CLAPS because yes that is the whole point. that's what i say about our site and our content as a whole: if we've taught one person one thing that day, we're okay. that's why we're here.

charlotte: and again, to those people who are confused as to why or how a senegalese cookbook could be judged against a book on making pizza at home, it's not about whether senegalese food is better than pizza. duh. it's about whether or not (and how) each book lived up to the promise it put out. did it deliver on its word? 

me: well, it's the question we ask judges to answer: what, to you, makes a cookbook great? and is this one?

charlotte: exactly

me: so greens versus a baking book that's not the approach

charlotte: the only bias we expect relates to pleasure. which did you enjoy cooking and eating from? that's where you can put them next to each other in a more direct way

me: yes. which will you keep in your kitchen, on your shelf?

charlotte: but again, since each judge lets us know what he does or doesn't like going in we're able, as readers, to understand that bias at the end, if there was one. we understand why Julie chose Violet. and we understand why Brooks (and his team of competent and opinionated cooks) went with Ruth's book

me: mhm but we can totally concede that it can be a tough job to look at such different books in that context. i've done a lot of judge coaching, but in a good way: they want to do the books justice

charlotte: our judges are troopers you're in the trenches with them now. but i used to have to walk them through it. i'd say, think of each cookbook as presenting you with a thesis, and then ask yourself it was proven. take each one at its word, and see if it kept it, then think about which one you'd want to keep

me: and also: did this book live up to YOUR criteria of an excellent cookbook, whatever that may be

charlotte: YES, that too and that means even if the food of Oman isn't your thing, you can still judge its excellence but no you're not forced to pick it if the Tex Mex cookbook was just as well-executed and you couldn't stop making the fajitas

me: do you find the recipes fine but damn, you can't get past the fact that the whole thing is a graphic novel and it's so distracting? then okay. that counts.

charlotte: i love it when judges get into the art direction. it's part of the whole.

me: it's one of my favorite things. even if i don't agree. like brooks: glossy pages?!?! hell no. but i love that he has a strong opinion

charlotte: my mom is big into the piglet. she reads each judgment, thoroughly. she was really curious about Brooks's preference for the glossy pages

me: we should ask him to write that ode because honestly, it makes no sense to my brain

charlotte: yes. i try to make my dad read them too. 

me: i think my dad would appreciate julie's. it does a lot to take cooking down from whatever pedestal many people think it's sitting atop

charlotte: his comment about the matte vs. glossy situation was that "matte's the trend now." thanks Dad. it turns out he pays attention

me: ha, dad's right. i think we should add a category to the judgments: "did our parents like this review?"

charlotte: YES I want my parents to be piglet judges

me: CAN WE HAVE A FAMILY LIGHTNING ROUND

charlotte: YES that would be The Very Best

me: seems like we have some good next steps

charlotte: I hope the Food52 community continues to share opinions, but I also hope, maybe, they trust us a little more. That they trust the process, and allow for—or better, embrace—some of the kookiness. there are, as of the last two years, a lot of places they can go for generic reviews of cookbooks. The Piglet is special because it celebrates what's eccentric in cookbooks and the people who use them (which is all of us)

charlotte: And it showcases some brilliant writing and humor, and what we think are the best cookbooks of last year. We're having fun! If this wasn't fun, I promise, it wouldn't still be happening. 

me: the fact is, too—and i hope this isn't getting lost—is that we do this because we love these books so dearly. every one of them. no part of the process or the judging is carried out to slight the books. in that way, we have a lot in common—us and our dissenting commenters (and our happy ones!)

charlotte: YES.

me: can we sing kumbaya now?

charlotte: yes. But we will maybe just change the lyric to "kabocha" just to keep it food-focused

me: ha it is playing in my head right now it works

charlotte: totally.

28 Comments

Kat W. March 16, 2016
I loved the reading all of the reviews. I am a Piglet novice. Although I'd seen in on your website last year I didn't quite understand what it was all about. This year I paid more attention, started reading the reviews from the moment they started being posted, and loved every one of them. I also appreciated the above exchange and understand it even more. I felt like each review highlighted in detail the personality and feel of each cookbook, and will help me make decisions about which ones I will buy. Loved it. Can't wait for the final!
 
booglix March 16, 2016
I really enjoy the quirkiness of the Piglet, and the fact that the objective is not to find The Best Cookbook. I've read it and enjoyed it since the first year, but now I find the chorus of commenters often insufferable: it's usually piling on one way or another, with over-the-top praise or complaints. If there were a truly bad review, I'd get it, but I have yet to read a truly bad review. Most commenters seem to have a narrow vision of success.
 
twosavoie March 13, 2016
I like the selection of judges. I want to read perspectives I wouldn't otherwise consider. I enjoy hearing that individual voice. And regardless of who wins, all the books are cooked from and commmented on, maybe just not multiple times. Every year I buy one or two of the reviewed books but rarely the winner. <br /><br />It seems to me that the winner of each round is the book the judge enjoyed and wanted to keep cooking from most. And a lot goes into that: the voice of the author, the feel and look of the book, the selection of recipes, how helpful or frustrating the instructions were. That's how I choose cookbooks too. What kind of food is featured (veg vs. sweets) isn't important to me. I just want to enjoy the book for itself. I think The Piglet follows a similar philosophy.
 
Leil March 8, 2016
I would love to see a list of all the cookbooks considered for the tournament each year...it's always interesting to learn. I don't particularly care why specific books are selected though. I find the Piglet fascinating and fun--I love that there are no "rules" or rubrics for people to follow. And I love the odd pairings because it seems so real to me--I might pick up two very different cookbooks at the same time and enjoy them both and maybe decide one is better for me now. So this feels real, and the writing is so engaging. Thank you for the Piglet!
 
penelope March 4, 2016
This staged conversation would have been a lot more effective if it had been between someone defending Food52's decision to use novice cooks/cookbook reviewers and one of the more articulate commenters who disagrees with that position. This "exchange" was just a series of increasingly more self-congratulatory, poorly punctuated comments.
 
MaryMaryCulinary March 4, 2016
I couldn't agree more, especially the self-congratulatory bit!
 
Lisa March 1, 2016
I'd say MRinSF nailed it.
 
MRinSF March 1, 2016
I think it's obvious from the outpouring of praise and gratitude to Phyllis' review today that the dedicated cooks among your readership have a point in being frustrated with the "lighter" reviews that skim over the books. And I'd wager that more casual cooks got a great deal out of Phyllis' review, in contrast to the frustration from more "serious" cooks' in response to a review like Julie's. And, with all due respect, "fun" is itself a subjective term -- so to insist we all just "lighten up" misses the point. ;-)
 
Transcendancing March 1, 2016
Loved this chat and loved getting a sense of the Piglet - this is my first year following from the beginning and I love the vision for the reviews. I don't want all professional reviews, I want all kinds of reviews for exactly the reasons you outline - so I can see whether it might be a book I'd enjoy. Context is so helpful for these things! I love cookbooks, I love admiring them but I almost never buy them because I mostly cook from the internet - I buy those that are something really special that I'm certain I'll cook from over and over again. It's been a great rule of thumb so far, but through something like the PIglet, I also get to live vicariously through cookbooks I may not be able to justify buying but want to admire anyway :)
 
ariel A. February 29, 2016
This is great! It's my second year following the piglet, so I love having a better picture of the original vision!
 
Amanda M. February 29, 2016
This was wonderful, and I'm so glad you took the time to comment from Food52's perspective. Internet People often ruin the levity of things by taking them way too seriously, resulting in judgments that often miss the point. (How sad to let yourself become so angry and frustrated by something so fun!) I absolutely love the Piglet, and really appreciate the platform you have created for sharing information, encouraging ALL explorations and definitions of cooking — at home and otherwise — all the while engaging and promoting community. Keep on keeping things fresh, interesting, and fun.
 
eatboutique February 29, 2016
go you two! <3
 
Lisa February 29, 2016
This conversation seems incredibly self-serving and posting it on the same level as the piglet reviews is silly. Sounds like the negative comments struck a chord. You two sound like two mean girls in The bathroom who just got chastised by the teacher And feel guilty but keep telling themselves they're right.
 
Author Comment
Kenzi W. February 29, 2016
I am so truly sorry you feel this way—it wasn't the intention at all. Rather, we wanted to serve the books and authors who were losing rounds (and explain that this wasn't a negative), as well as the judges who were being chastised in the comments for not being well-rounded cooks.
 
THEToughCookie February 29, 2016
Thank you, Kenzi & Charlotte, for taking the time to discuss Julie's judgment, and her worth as a judge. I have always loved Food 52, as I view it, first and foremost, as a community of, by and for cooks of every level. Moreover, I thought it was intended to be a welcoming community where everyone could learn and improve, from someone who's never set foot in a kitchen to seasoned pro. That's why I was appalled by so many of the negative comments on Julie's judgment. The two of you have, very nicely, reminded readers why we're here. My faith has been renewed, and I'll try to remember to put my blinders on if I read the comments on future judgments. BTW, I'm a professional baker and anytime I hear about a baking book that has engaged a neophyte, I'm deliriously happy.
 
mcs3000 February 28, 2016
Thank you, Charlotte + Kenzi. Love the Piglet - so fun!
 
pmani February 28, 2016
Jeez, the Piglet is taking itself too seriously. I find the holier-than-thou, what-qualifies-you-to-be-a-judge commenters annoying too. But this carefully careless response from the editors is unnecessary as well. Publish the reviews and know that people are going to respond how they will. Just as the judgements aren't in your control, the comments aren't either. Both are just people expressing their opinions.
 
meglet February 28, 2016
"carefully careless" -- well said, pmani.
 
Victoria C. February 28, 2016
I thought this was hilariously defensive.
 
meglet February 28, 2016
I certainly don't think y'all or Klam deserve a shower of opprobrium, but I did think this was a poor pairing. And I did see touches of disdain for in Klam's review.<br /><br />The fact is, cookbooks *aren't* written for everyone. Thomas Keller and Mark Bittman have different audiences in mind. At least pairing cookbooks by intended audience would yield the best read (and that's what we care about most, right?). I guess my final thought is that, yes, the Food52 readers should trust the editors. But the editors should trust the readers, too -- if the readers say no, reconsideration may be in order.
 
Valhalla February 28, 2016
Agree. I don't think anyone thinks only professionals should be judging, but there were things in that review that it was hard to accept anyone who loves cooking would say. It was such a contrast to the careful comparison of the first day.
 
luvcookbooks February 28, 2016
I announced to random colleagues while looking at my phone: "The Piglet has started!" I feed the group lots of snacks, so they were understanding. Thanks for reviewing the purpose. I am a physician and spend a lot of time in situations where levity is not an option. I love not approaching cookbooks too solemnly. Thank you a million times for lighting up February!
 
Meghan February 28, 2016
This is excellent! Thanks for sharing! I absolutely love the Piglet and look forward to it (and talk about it to non-cookbook-enthusiasts WAY too much: "I swear it's like NCAA but way, way better!"
 
gingerroot February 27, 2016
Thank you, Charlotte and Kenzi! The Piglet is one of my favorite things for all of the reasons you mention above. I love the range of judges each year (really it's pretty fabulous), not to mention cookbooks. As a passionate home cook, I most appreciate the reviews that are honest from the start about the judge's approach to cooking. Humor is a bonus! Over the last few years, my daughter (now 10) reads the judgments aloud each day as we slog through early morning traffic. It is also one of my favorite things. Julie Klam had us in stitches. Long live the Piglet!
 
LauriL March 1, 2016
My thoughts exactly gingerroot! I also liked Kenzi's explanation to Lisa as to the positive intentions that the "losers" are really not losers at all but BIG WINNERS!..... (no matter WHO the judges happened to be).<br />
 
Author Comment
Kenzi W. March 1, 2016
:) But you HAVE to like it, right mom??
 
LauriL March 1, 2016
No other choice on this planet! Lol
 
Joe February 27, 2016
"family lightning round", folks. Every single oneof these titles are worthy- I usually have 8-10 of them by the tournament's start but end up owning all most all by the final round. Kabocha!