Our Eating Lives

The Kitchen Analog: I Cracked for Buttermilk Cookies

Our Eating Lives features stories about how food, cooking, and eating have shaped who we are and how we live.

I have a friend who has nearly memorized all the symptoms and ailments she could possibly diagnose herself with via WebMD. This knowledge, in itself, is not bad. But when a sore foot, for instance, could be sciatica, osteomyelitis (bone infection), or merely pain brought on by shoes, the problem becomes clear: having too many options, covering too broad a range of possibilities, creates a sense of panic rather than presenting useful solutions.

When I told her that I would be cooking through the month of August without consulting the Internet, she decided to similarly challenge herself: she would go the month of August without consulting WebMD for medical advice. So far, to my knowledge, she has stayed her course.

buttermilk cookiesI, however, cracked this week. I participated in a bake sale, for which I wanted to make buttermilk cookies, a recipe that is based on a description by Edna Lewis. In her essay, “What is Southern?”, she describes eating buttermilk cookies and drinking lemonade, but no recipe for the cookies exists in her papers. So the cooks at Gourmet created one, and it’s a perfect cookie:  it makes a lot, it’s light and lemony, and it brings to mind pancakes, which is a nice sense memory to have while eating a cookie.

I knew I wanted to make those cookies, but no print source has them. So I turned to the Internet. I knew I would have to confess it here: after three weeks of Internet-free cooking, the Internet reeled me back in.

But there is a bright side to that minor setback in my mission to escape the noise of the Interwebs. The particular context of my moment of weakness led me to an important truth, one that really lies at the core of the whole Kitchen Analog experiment. It is best described in this quote by Neil Gaiman:

Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.

The original impetus for The Kitchen Analog came from doing a Google search for how long to bake chicken. In a half a second, over 14,000,000 answers come up, and the first four are community message boards (i.e. not test kitchens, not food publications, just message boards). That’s fourteen million answers to the question of how long to bake chicken. And the answer? It depends. How big is your chicken? What cut is it? Bone-in or boneless?

I sat there and thought, Dana, what are you doing? You’ve been cooking since you were thirteen. You really need to search the Internet to know how long to bake a chicken?

I cracked and used the Internet for the buttermilk cookie recipe because I know that recipe. I’ve made it several times, I trust it, and I’ve begun to tweak it, adding a bit more lemon to it, boosting the flavor a bit. I don’t want a broad search for buttermilk cookies, and I knew I didn’t need to thumb through all my cookbooks; I want the one right recipe that I know works. And that’s the one from Gourmet. 

But often, in our pursuit of the perfect recipe, the prettiest, the most Pinterest-worthy, we end up with millions of possible recipes from home cooks, magazines, cookbooks, food media sites, and beyond. We’re offered variations, low-calorie, low-fat, and gluten-free modifications. We’re given pretty pictures and presented with a multitude of options. How does one pick out the right answer? How does one decide what kind of pain ails the foot? How do we discern between the best ways to bake chicken, between sciatica and bone infection?

Imagine a library with fourteen million copies of the same book; how do you decide which particular copy to pull off the shelf?

I learned to cook in the digital age. When I first started cooking, the Food Network website gave me a world of recipes, right at my fingertips. No books required. But that technology carried a compromise with it:  in going recipe-by-recipe, I never learned the concrete skills, the basics of everyday cooking. Instead, I performed culinary feats like making caramel sauce or funnel cakes. I didn’t learn to bake chicken because I had the Internet to figure that out for me.

And that’s what The Kitchen Analog has been about. It’s the pursuit of thinking and internalizing material. It’s paying attention. It’s finally learning the basics fifteen years late. I’m finding that I don’t have to quit the Internet to do that, but it has helped. There’s a great deal of pressure that comes with 14 million search results, or beautiful grids on Pinterest, or recipe after recipe in my Twitter feed. And there’s time for all of it. As T.S. Eliot said in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,”

There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of toast and tea.

The Internet isn’t going anywhere; it will be here, with its millions of search results and the magic of information. There will be time for modifications, for “visions and revisions,” for experimentation and indulgence and creativity. There will be time for cutting calories. “Time for you and time for me.”

And with that knowledge, the pressure eases. Consult a cookbook. Bake the chicken. Write down the method and put it in your pocket and read it once more before bed.


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About Dana Staves

Dana Staves writes about food, books, and the writing life. To keep up with her antics and see gratuitous Instagrams of her cat and her food, follow her on Twitter @DanaStaves.

  • Wini Moranville

    Well, as someone who has edited and written cookbooks for the last 15 years, I really do appreciate this! I don’t know what I’d do without my cookbooks–written by pros who tested and perfected their recipes until they were truly worthy of committing to paper and ink. The Internet has made it too easy to put just anything up there, and too hard to sort through it all (though of course, there are sites you can always trust, like Epicurious).

    • Dana Staves

      Thanks, Wini! I have to say, I came up through the Internet and blog recipes, and some of them are fantastic, but as you said, some are just average joes/janes who took a pretty picture and threw a recipe out there. The value of tested and re-tested recipes has really hit home for me this month. I’ve come to depend on them. Ive built trust with their recipes.

  • Marge Hennessy

    I’m gonna go ahead and say that your moment of “cracking” doesn’t really count because it was from a print source that you simply had no way of getting to otherwise. Yours was a tailored search of an archived recipe–like thumbing through a virtual cookbook. You’ve been absolved by Marge. Rest easy. :)

    • Dana Staves

      Yay! Absolution!! That makes me feel better. I mean, it’s not my fault Gourmet went under, but did us all a solid by archiving their magazine so well on the Interwebs.

  • kit steinkellner

    Internet/library analogy is so accurate, recently had a cooking dilemma where the internet gave me ten different solutions, ended up just texting a chef friend and going with his rec, everything turned out aces.

    • Dana Staves

      Haha! Sometimes, you just need that one right answer instead of having to choose from ten of them. Simplification nation.

  • http://www.next-course.com/ Lindsey | The Next Course

    What a lovely conclusion to this adventure, Dana! I really love that poem–thank you so much for sharing it here.

    • Dana Staves

      Thanks, Lindsey! Prufrock is one of my favorites, too.

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