Information spreads, food cultures merge, and awareness grows. America has embraced the green, the local and the seasonal, organic is all the rage and farmer's markets are the latest trend. Culinary discoveries surround us, new cuisines and exotic ingredients now a simple shopping trip or internet connection away. There has been a return to home cooking in leaps and bounds by both men and women alike. Whether we grew up with the boxed and the frozen or with a mother who created stunning meals straight from the pages of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, we are discovering the joys of measuring, chopping, stirring, simmering and kneading, of putting a comforting, healthy home-cooked meal on the table for friends and family.
Or so I hear. I have been rather stunned, confused and dismayed by the deluge of junk food posing as the homebaked and homecooked on so many American food blogs, and I am not alone. Beautifully photographed recipes, which I tend to consider not so much recipes as arts & crafts' instructions, are rampant: meals made from cans and prepackaged sauces, desserts based on boxed cake and brownie mixes, canned frosting, jars of marshmallow fluff and then stuffed or topped with industrial marshmallows and chopped candy bars. Layers of gaudy, day-glo snacks and desserts on more than one high-trafficked, well-known blog feature Twinkies or Oreos as the main ingredient, seemingly now a widespread trend. Call me a food snob, if you will, but I don't get it. Haven't we moved on? Don't we in the food blogging world have the desire and the goal to achieve something healthier, tastier, slightly more elevated than what my own parents made 40 years ago when all of this boxed and packaged stuff was new and exciting? We have knowledge and information at our fingertips, we have time and all the necessary technology so why not use it all towards something a tad more noble?
Food blogging, for many of us, began as a way to record and share favorite recipes and connect with other like-minded souls, maybe even learning something about new ingredients, cuisines or technique along the way. Today, it seems that food blogging has simply become big business; branding, traffic, stats, monetizing, advertising, SEOs and cookbook deals are the driving forces and defining factors for many. Shock value and visual appeal seem to be more important than quality content and healthful, creative recipes, the former apparently drawing a much bigger audience. And who can deny that a gorgeous photo doesn't distract the visitor from the actual ingredients? For each of these confections filled with artificial ingredients, sugar and chemicals, overloaded with butter and fat, dazzling with packaged marshmallows, candies and cookies, hundreds of comments from thousands of readers ooze adoration and exclaim a ravenous desire to succumb to sin and partake. A culture of decadence, a culture of excess, junk food has now become retro classic.
Sadly, it seems that food like this, or rather what passes for food, has become the bread and butter for many food bloggers. Don't get me wrong, I have eaten my fair share of sugary cereals, boxed cookies and cakes made from mixes and I have always been an avowed addict of industrial bagged marshmallows. But that was the 1960's and 70's when the frozen, boxed, prepackaged and the mass produced were all part of a thoroughly modern food revolution, created for a new generation of busy working parents; it was all born out of post-war abundance and Space Age progress, a time of convenience when our hours could be better spent playing, working or studying. And who knew any better? Who spoke of chemicals, high fructose corn syrup, preservatives or artificial colorings and flavorings? We simply gloried in the modernization of preparing and eating family meals and snacks.
There are a multitude of excellent food blogs featuring creative recipes, healthy and delicious, from-scratch dishes and desserts, as well as food blogs introducing us to certain ethnic and traditional cuisines, so why are so many food blogs that offer, well, trash, getting such high traffic and so many cookbook deals? A friend's fiery article on the Huffington Post called many of today's television cooking shows little more than entertainment, creating and selling a brand; in other words, a moneymaking machine. Should we be questioning the motives of food blogs as well? Indeed, blogs are personal and to each his or her own, yet once we have a reading public who may actually look up to us, emulate us, cook the recipes we offer, do we have a responsibility to move beyond the junk, the chemical and the overly fatty? Have food blogs become just another form of entertainment, mere moneymaking machines? One must, in fact, wonder if these bloggers actually feed what appears on their blogs to their families; many of those who post one unhealthy treat made of processed and artificial ingredients after another, day in and day out, are parents of young children claiming to be devoted to offering their families healthy things to eat. If they are, in reality, not baking these snacks for their families, at whom are these concoctions aimed and what exactly are they trying to promote? Instead of promoting this kind of trash food, maybe we food bloggers should somehow aspire to something better, to inform or educate, to encourage and inspire our readers to bake and cook from scratch, no matter how simple, using something other than the bagged, the boxed and the industrial. Is it our responsibility to create content and recipes with integrity and thoughtfulness and not simply out of the desire to draw more traffic to our blog?
We are living in a society of excess and consumerism and one in which obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses are raging out of control. Are these food blogs that seem to elevate junk food to some glorified culinary height and give it value contributing to our national health problems, feeding into and reinforcing the accepted food culture of unhealthy eating? Whether or not we indulge in the occasional Rice Krispie Treat and Oreo-stuffed brownie in the privacy of our own home, do they have a place on a food blog? And even if I make it in my home is it truly homemade, are these recipes really recipes? Some say there is room in the blogosphere for both the truly homemade and these semi-homemade, purely indulgent convenience foods, but what message is this sending out to our readers? Where do consumerism, moneymaking and entertainment end and responsibility and smart kick in? I would like to see more food bloggers ask themselves these questions. Or maybe I am simply a wide-eyed idealist.
Thanks to four friends who contributed ideas and thoughts to this article, you know who you are.
Jamie Schler lives, eats and writes in France. To read more of her work visit Life's a Feast.