A song to read by: "John the Baptist," by John & Beverley Martyn
What I’m reading: "How to Blow Up a Pipeline," by Andreas Malm
Cheeseburger in purgatory
Imagine: It is a Tuesday evening, and you are cooking a weeknight meal for your family. You made homemade salsa over the weekend, so tacos, Spanish rice and a tomato and cucumber salad are on the menu.
On the stove, six tortillas warm on a cast-iron skillet. In the oven, a tender piece of halibut cooks slowly, dressed only in a light splash of olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper. On your front burner, Spanish rice nears the end of its 20-minute cooking time.
As the heated elements work, you frantically attend to the cilantro, plucking leaves from stems as nimbly as your fingers can work. In the sink, water drains slowly from the cabbage you dusted with salt. Near your cutting board, a makeshift crema still needs to be whisked together out of yogurt, lime, salt and feta cheese.
All the while, a horde of tomatoes, cucumbers and jalapeños await their turn on the chopping block, eager to mix together with a light dressing and some parsley you’ve run through with a knife.
Your family is growing hungry. Your youngest child is nearly bleating. You still have to walk the dog before the sun goes down. All of a sudden, an acrid odor rises from the oven.
“Was the oven at 300 or 400?” you wonder, a chill snaking down your back. Frantic, you sling your trusted tongs over the oven door, dig your hand into your pocket and wrestle your phone out of your snug jeans. As the smell grows bitter, you flip to the recipe you had followed to bake the halibut.
You scroll, scroll, scroll, past the moving story of the Oaxacan chef who ate her first halibut on a boat with her tio.
Scroll, scroll, scroll, past the lagging video of disembodied hands patting down an iridescent filet with assorted spices.
Scroll, scroll, scroll through the ingredients list that promotes a gallon of milk at a grocery store just one state away.
Scroll, scroll, scroll through a dozen grocery partners who offer to happily deliver your shopping list ingredients.
Scroll, scroll, scroll until, finally, you reach the instructions.
Your thumb moves fervently through the steps as your eye scans for a three-digit number and the word oven. You catch a quick glance and see a 2 — but oh no, a newsletter pop-up sabotages your mission!
“Sign up here to receive our daily recipe recommendations,” it chides.
You ex out of the ad, your thumb straining to reach the top left side of the square. Finally, the oven temperature appears: 275.
“Oh no,” you realize. “I’ve overcooked the fish.”
You rush to the oven, but it is too late. The tender, succulent filet has stiffened into a cartilaginous scarlet letter of your making. The dinner is ruined. The tortillas burn. The rice boils over. The cabbage weeps — for you.
The tragedy of g-commerce
As an avowed home cook and amateur food media critic, the scenario depicted above has been my reality far too many times. Many cooking websites’ user experience seem to care unnervingly little about the environments in which their users employ them.
The evolution of cooking media has largely followed the same trajectory as the larger world of publishing: an initial period of sparse, text-driven design, followed by a deluge of distracting advertisements, and finally an uneasy peace between the need to monetize and the need to provide utility.
As I have written about before, Bon Appétit first won my heart with its recipes and in-the-kitchen-with-them style. Toward the latter half of the aughts, NYT Cooking became my go-to, largely because of its ease of use and intuitive design. For the most part, little has changed since then.
However, my work with Adweek has exposed me to a new trend sweeping the world of food media, one that threatens to plunge the world of culinary instruction into chaos, shattering years of relative harmony.
Reader, her name is g-commerce.
What is g-commerce?
G-commerce, short for grocery commerce, is not a new concept: Bon Appétit has been hawking cookware in its recipes for years, and every food media worth its salt has embraced a healthy affiliate business. And why not? If the recipe developer prefers a certain kind of tomato sauce or harissa or microplane for their recipe, I might want to know what it is.
But g-commerce as we know it today goes beyond the pale. It is the byproduct of new technological breakthroughs, which allow food publishers to determine exactly where you live, what grocery stores surround you, what availability those stores have and which courier businesses serve your area.
As a result, they can finally monetize essentially every element of the recipe-browsing experience, from the cutting board you use to the sumac you order to the bell peppers you have delivered.
The commodification of the ingredients differs only slightly, in theory, from the other ways online recipes try to open your wallet. But the rub is simple: recipes can have a lot of ingredients. If each one of them can be purchased, suddenly a list of 10 ingredients becomes a list of 10 potential purchases.
Even if the publisher has not inked a deal with a retail behemoth to sell and deliver you your groceries, many have turned the space surrounding the ingredients list into an advertising haven. Because the space is now, theoretically, a point of purchase, it is also a hot commodity for brands.
As a result, the ingredients list, which itself offers clickthrough options to purchase the needed components, is surrounded by a mise en place of ads, all urging you to consider other products.
A chicken casserole? Campbells will own that page. Pulled pork? You never knew so many barbecue sauces existed. A chili recipe? You might as well close your browser now.
But what about the fragile peace?
The world of digital media works in predictable patterns, and the rise of g-commerce is simply the latest iteration of a familiar phenomenon. When a new technology allows for a new kind of ad placement, publishers tend to over-indulge.
If you strain your ear, you can practically hear the drool dropping from the salivating mouths of boardroom financiers:
“You mean we can monetize … everything? From the equipment, to the ingredients, to the grocery delivery itself? Yes … yes must have it. We must!”
Luckily, over time, hindsight has tempered some of the worst impulses of the industry. Several prominent food publishers have found ways to introduce g-commerce in a minimally invasive way, opting to whisk users to another screen before prompting them to pay, for example.
Others, like NYT Cooking, have simply declined to adopt the technology. Whether that is a hard stance or a momentary hesitation remains to be seen. But if premier publishers have learned anything from our tech overlords, it is that user experience trumps nearly every other consideration.
It's the old fishing adage, rehashed: Show five ads to a visitor and scare them away, you make a buck. Show one ad to a customer and encourage them to return, you make a lot more money.
For home cooks, whom I assume also consult the app or website containing the recipe while they cook the recipe, the navigability of a site plays an outsized role in their decision to visit it again later.
As tantalizing of a concept as g-commerce is, it should never interfere with the utility of the recipe. When you sacrifice intuitive design to squeeze in a few more ad placements, you risk curdling your entire appeal.
Some good readin'
— So many good reads this week! But to stay on the food theme: there is truly nothing more delicious than a high-stakes negative review for Pete Wells. (New York Times)
— Dan Savage has been provocatively writing about sex for 30 years! Can you imagine doing that and avoiding cancellation? What a wonderful, finger-on-the-zeitgeist piece. (Slate)
— One of the few "What should Facebook do now?" articles that actually makes some wise points. (Wired)
— Of course, I have to include the Ben Smith piece. This was so vindicating for so many media journalists (including me, in a big way) who have been mystified by this weird, smoke-and-mirrors company. (New York Times)
— I honestly cannot get enough of ad-tech. This explains where all the problems came from. (The Atlantic)
— A tender, intimate subject, rendered accessible by the very talented people at Vox. Plus, it's a comic, so it hardly feels like reading. (Vox)
— Finally, to end with another phenomenal food piece: Non-alcoholic beer is having its breakthrough moment, seriously. A recovering alcoholic appraises it, and its risk. (The New Yorker)
Cover image: "Property of a European Collector," by Roy Lichtenstein