In the age of culinary smackdowns, this one might not be quite up there with the drama of a Batali-Flay Iron Chef food fight, but in terms of Web chatter, it takes the cake. Or should we say the pork shoulder and sugar cookies.
Those are the two dishes on the hotplate as the venerable Cook's Illustrated magazine (a.k.a. America's Test Kitchen), the geeky arbiter of perfect kitchen technique, and the upstart Food52.com, the people-powered website started about a year ago by N.Y. Times food columnist Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs.
Last October, Cook's founder Christopher Kimball on his blog challenged Hesser (though the direct reference to her was later removed) to see which would produce the best recipes: Cook's with its strictly controlled testing and development procedures, or Food52's egalitarian method in which the public submits recipes to a weekly contest, Hesser and Stubbs cull the entries and the public determines the winner.
"We think ours produces a kind of richer recipe and it's more directly connected to people and our culture," Hesser said. "Ours is equal quality, just a different style."
Then there's that notion that it takes a pro to push the culinary envelope and help even accomplished home cooks get beyond what they already know. Hesser said the reason Food52 took up the Cook's challenge was -- yes, to have some fun and maybe a chunk of publicity -- but also to have a serious conversation about exactly this topic. She said she and Stubbs had always expected to get good recipes from readers, but have been stunned at the high quality they've turned out to be.
"The food revolution, which has been going for some years, has gone to a place where regular people now know a lot about food. They are highly skilled and want to express their voice," Hesser said. "Regular home cooks really know their stuff and pay attention to all sorts of different influences."
As for Cook's part -- they ain't talkin' -- right now, anyway. "It's not on top of our list of what's important," said a spokeswoman who did admit they were having fun with the contest but offered that they were surprised at the large public interest.
"Seriously?" Hesser said. "All they need to do is go online and see all the thousands of food blogs as evidence of interest the last few years."
(Entries in the Cook's vs. Food52 challenge will be posted May 5 on Slate and the winners determined by public vote.)
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