Monday, January 14, 2013

Cook's Illustrated and Evaluation

I just finished reading the New York Times Magazine's exhaustive, fascinating profile of Cook's Illustrated publisher and editor Christopher Kimball. I've read the magazine for years - it's a family tradition - and own at least two CI cookbooks. I fall outside the typical user, according to this article - I tend to use the voluminous notes before each recipe to craft my own final version. I can read, for example, that CI tried sour cream in the cranberry bread recipe but ultimately went with buttermilk for the final version, learn about the results of using sour cream, and decide to use sour cream in my own bread based on that.

What struck me professionally rather than personally in reading this article was this section:
What few quibble with is Kimball’s grasp of the magazine business. “I think he’s a genius,” says Ruth Reichl, the former editor of Gourmet. “He gives his readers exactly what they want while managing to repurpose every recipe six or seven times.” Privately, some editors at C.I. complain that Kimball’s business model sometimes works too well. SurveyMonkey, the software that keeps them in touch with readers, informs every aspect of the editorial process — when a test cook wondered whether most readers had access to shallots, SurveyMonkey told them they did. One consequence of a participatory approach to content is the readers’ tendency to pass on their contradictions. “When we survey, everyone tells us they want healthy, low-fat recipes, but then no one wants to make them,” an editor says. “They want dinner to take 20 minutes, but they want it to taste like it took all day.” It turns out that readers tend to return to the familiar — to date, Kimball’s magazines have published eight iterations of meatloaf — and, until recently, snubbed ethnic cooking. “Getting international recipes into the magazine was like pulling teeth,” an editor tells me. When they do make it into print, the recipes survey better after they’ve been decoded into familiar language: Thai-Style Stir-Fried Noodles With Chicken and Broccolini will get a more enthusiastic response than Pad See Ew. The readers’ prejudices dovetail neatly with Kimball’s. “We’re doing Saag Paneer,” he announced one morning. “Everyone here loved it except me — all that army green goop, you’ve got to be out of your mind! But we publish what our readers want, not what Christopher Kimball wants. I’m happier eating hoagies.”
I'm fascinated by CI's ability to do two contradictory things simultaneously: promote a highbrow, expensive, old-fashioned, and relentlessly edited style of cooking while also paying such careful, constant attention to feedback from its readers. There has to be something in there that museums can learn from. Museums have traditionally spent most of their time doing just what CI does: delivering high-quality, carefully packaged content with an authoritative voice. But many are struggling to make that content as appealing as CI does, and I wonder if part of the reason isn't that careful, almost neurotic, attention to detail in feedback that CI pursues.

I also appreciated that feedback contradiction appears here, too. I've seen this in museums: teachers simultaneously tell an educator that they didn't spend enough time in the museum when their 1.5 hour tour was clearly far too long for their students' attention spans, and made them late getting back to their bus. The answer is somewhere in between. CI readers want to prepare good food quickly, but say that they want nutrition and lowfat recipes. Those two goals are not always easily dovetailed. The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle: informational, interactive tours that leave students and teachers wanting more but don't take up too much time.

No comments:

Post a Comment