Why Your Dinner Doesn't Taste As Good As It Looked Online

    As aggregators and social media put increased focus on visuals, a great photo matters more than a great recipe. And the bloggers aren't talking about it.

    Celia Muller, author of Cookbook Archaeology, knew that things had gone too far the day she found herself pulling a pot roast out of the oven early one morning, spending an hour photographing it, and then sticking the whole thing back in the fridge with only vague notions of eating it later. "No one wants pot roast at 10 in the morning," she recalls. "And I knew it probably wouldn't taste as good later. But I had to cook it then, because that's when the light was the best."

    Such is the life of a contemporary food blogger. While a quick scan through Pinterest or Tastespotting can leave browsers with the impression that top food bloggers spend their days eating dandelion greens and fancy cupcakes off of artfully mismatched dishes, that careful presentation — and getting those photos in front of your eyes — takes a lot of work, most of which doesn't have much to do with cooking food that tastes good, or writing a recipe that works. Instead, it's about cute plates, perfect lighting, photography, and social media networking. In other words, as they say on the internet: It's about building a brand.

    In a way, food blogging has become a prisoner of its own success. In the early days of the internet, people dreamed that online popularity would quickly lead to book deals, robust careers, and offline fame. While that fantasy died a quick death in most corners of the online world, food blogging is going strong: Writers are still snagging book deals based on online presence alone.

    But a strong online presence for food bloggers is increasingly based more on the quality of the photos and the website — not necessarily the quality of the food.

    To gain exposure, food bloggers are in constant competition to get featured on a slew of aggregator sites like Tastespotting and Food Gawker, which in many ways act as the gatekeepers of greater foodie fame. But Tastespotting editors are known for being tough and rejecting any photos that are overprocessed, poorly composed, or badly lit. Other sites like Foodbuzz, Food Gawker, Photograzing, Tasteologie, Dessert Stalking, and Food Porn Daily have high standards as well. It's not surprising that many cooking schools have started to offer pricey food-styling classes geared toward eager amateurs.

    No one is complaining about high-quality photos, but the gatekeeper mentality can lead to an overwhelming sameness — browse through one too many stacks of cookies tied with baker's twine, or one too many close-up shots of pie on top of a diagonal tablecloth, and they all start to blur together. "There's a kind of visual convergence," Muller says. "And if you want to go through the conventional channels [read: aggregators], you have to subscribe to what is essentially someone else's aesthetic." That aesthetic, as food writer Adam Roberts put it in a post on his blog Amateur Gourmet, is roughly: "bright colors, punny title, big, SLR-photographed pictures of food, lots of buttons for sharing and liking on Facebook, and a safe, crowd-pleasing writing style that wouldn't be out of place in an airline magazine."

    "[The aggregators] certainly inspire conformity — the short depth-of-field, naturally lit shots of mostly Western food drives a certain sort of blogging," explains blogger Phil Lees of Last Appetite, in an email. "If you hold down a day job and have little access to natural light, you're not going to be pushing very many posts through to Tastespotting."

    Some argue that these aggregator sites are becoming less important thanks to Pinterest because the social media site democratizes the process. WIth Pinterest, the users, rather than faceless editors, choose the photos that go viral. But the reality is that food bloggers are up against even fiercer competition there now that huge brands like Target and Nestle are throwing marketing money into original food photography for Pinterest.

    For food bloggers, that kind of photo quality is both expensive and time-consuming. Digital SLR cameras cost hundreds of dollars and an added-on macro lens ups the cost hundreds more. And with all the opportunities to tinker, time can slip by. "I often spend hours on one shot," admits Amanda Rettke of I Am Baker. "It doesn't come naturally to me."

    And once the photographs are done, there's networking — which can mean commenting on other blogs to drive back traffic to your own, furiously updating Pinterest and Instagram accounts, and remembering to "like" or repin posts from other bloggers, hoping they'll return the favor. Muller, who has a full-time day job as a lawyer, says she got so exhausted by trying to keep up with fellow writers who were stay-at-home moms or worked from home that she gave up on her blog for several months.

    All together, that doesn't leave a lot of time to test and retest those Flourless Chocolate Chunk Nutella Brownies — not to mention proofread the recipe for them that ends up on your blog.

    At food magazines, while most staffers are multitaskers, clear divisions of labor exist. Having a separate recipe developer, food stylist, photographer, and photo editor is standard — to say nothing of other editors, publishers, and social media teams tasked with actually getting those recipes and photos in front of readers.

    Since its inception, blogging has removed some of the laymen, but top independent food bloggers have to wear an unusual number of hats very well if they want to succeed. They're also expected to make it look incredibly easy.

    That means that much of the real work that goes into being a food blogger gets Photoshopped away. But behind every shot of a blueberry scone topped with a casual dust of powdered sugar is an anything-but-casual setup: fancy cameras, reflectors, backdrops, photo-editing software, a marketing plan, a social media strategy, an attempt to drive up readership to increase AdSense revenue.

    Muller points out that the attempt to make it all look simple seeps into the writing of many food blogs as well. "There's a kind of tweeness," she says. The problem, some would argue, is that this particular kind of aww-shucks-I'm-just-a-gal-who-likes-butter schtick elides much of the real, hard, professional work that food bloggers put into their sites. "I'm guilty of it 100%," says Muller. "I've caught myself writing that way and thought, I need to sound smarter."

    Some blame it on the fact that the vast majority of food bloggers are women, with food blogs and their perfect photos of pastries as the online manifestation of the "how does she do it" ideal. But these images of effortless domesticity are something of a ruse — the hours spent working usually amount to those of part- or full-time employment, and in many cases a book deal or professional food-writing gig are the goal.

    Whether domestic skills, DIY craftiness, and online lifestyle curation are forms of feminist self-expression or merely a new gloss on traditional gender roles has been the subject of debate recently, but members of the dominant food-blogging culture seem to rarely engage in these discussions. By and large, seamless presentation means that complicated questions or potentially controversial opinions get treated as the rhetorical equivalent of dirty dishes — and cropped out of the picture.

    As editor of Eater Austin, Andrea Grimes reads around 50 food blogs a day, and though she's noticed a general unwillingness to tackle difficult subjects or take a critical stance, she doesn't think it's a gender thing. "The guy bloggers are equally wishy-washy," she says. Grimes thinks the pressure to play nice is ultimately a bad thing for the food blog scene. "Criticism helps people fix things. But there's an explicit turn away from that — because people are afraid of not getting invited to the free food-blogger parties, and because they want to create the impression that life is really good and easy."

    The pressure to make everything look good — and to make it look easy — may ultimately do more bad than good for food media. Readers can be left with half-baked recipes that look both easier to execute and tastier than they are in reality. And the bloggers end up exhausted.

    Blogger Vicki Wilde of Wilde in the Kitchen admits that if she had known all the work that went into maintaining a site, she's not sure if she would've started one in the first place. When a new full-time job and a three-hour commute made blogging seem like more effort than it was worth, Wilde nearly quit — which would have put her in good company. "A lot of blogs I used to read just disappeared," she says.

    Even the writers who seem to lead a food bloggers' dream life consider quitting from time to time. Molly Wizenberg had almost no professional food experience when she began Orangette in 2004; by 2009, her site was named the world's best food blog by The London Times. Wizenberg credits her blog with helping her win two book contracts, snag freelance assignments from Bon Appetit, and win over her husband (with whom she now co-manages two restaurants in Seattle).

    While Wizenberg is grateful for the opportunities (and friends) her blog has brought her, she still considers it a project with an eventual expiration date. "For the first year or two, I was posting three to five times a week," says Wizenberg, who has slowed her posting frequency to about once a month since her daughter was born last fall. "The nature of blogging is that you're supposed to do it frequently, but I find that I'm happiest when I have a really full life offline — being active with my friends, spending time with my family, and working in our restaurants. That's what feeds the blog. I think a lot of the rules [about how often you're supposed to post] aren't realistic or important — quality matters a lot more than quantity. But knowing that still doesn't stop the pesky little voice in my head that says, You haven't posted in eight days!" Sometimes Wizenberg thinks that expiration date might come sooner rather than later. She started the blog when she was 25, had just dropped out of grad school, and was living alone; now she's nearly a decade older, with a husband, a baby, and two restaurants. "My daily life and my reasons for doing the blog have changed so much, and sometimes I wonder whether the motivation I had in the beginning is still there," Wizenberg says. "And then I'll put up a new post and it'll be really fun and spontaneous and different from my freelance work, and I'll think, This is why I'm doing this."

    Wilde is learning a similar lesson. These days, she spends less time on the photo styling and social media promotion so she can spend more time, well, cooking and eating. It's important to remember that "I'm cooking it for dinner," she says. "And the longer I shoot it, the less delicious it's going to be."