You've seen the video of Paula Deen being pummeled in the face by a frozen turkey, right? And the clip of a baby aggressively eating chili? YouTube, the grand equalizer of the online masses and procrastination heavyweight, is a cache of videos for the gastronomically obsessed. Its best features may lie in collective amusement and unfettered laughter, but there are also more functional qualities lurking. For chefs, cultural anthropologists, and home cooks alike, user-posted videos are providing a new scope of culinary knowledge.
YouTube, and other websites with embedded video content, are visual archives of anything and everything food, from grainy videos of slaughterhouse conditions to foragers identifying mushrooms in the wild to Mario Batali's dance moves at a Journey concert. Funny, informative, or just plain weird, online video clips and the technologies that support them are also unlikely agents of education, ripe with possibility. Thus, a chef in New York City can watch a little old grandma making handmade orecchiette in her Italian kitchen, caught on tape by her 20-something-year-old grandson living at home, and can learn from it—culinary technique, taught from 4,000 miles away. Obscure pasta shapes? Mexican antojitos? Haggis? Just click, and learn.
Generally, cookbooks are the go-to for kitchen conundrums and creative stimulation; a shelf heavy with McGee, Olney, and Zuni Café tomes is a sturdy reference. However, you can't see or hear a printed recipe (imagine learning how to open an oyster by reading text) and even the most well-stocked library cannot undermine the speed and expanse of the Internet. Cooks curious about a particular technique can click through YouTube archives as if turning the pages of a well-thumbed French Laundry cookbook. I know many who do and then pass them around via e-mail and Facebook. Cutline Communications, a consumer technology PR company, has noted that "more Americans are turning to YouTube to learn how to prepare all kinds of foods," and that there is a "growing trend of chefs posting cooking videos to the site." Indeed, the volume of searches for the term "recipe" on YouTube has quadrupled since January 2008. Hand-guided instruction can't be beat, of course, but stages at Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain cost time and money, which most line cooks are short of. So the flick of a wrist when stretching mozzarella curds or an indentation of a finger on a rope of agnolotti caught on tape is precious information that cooks can utilize and share with others.
Clara's videos are slow-moving, soothing portraits—less, perhaps, about the recipe and more
about a specific time and place.
With the swarm of celebrity chefdom and reality TV cooking, the leap from foodie television to the Internet makes sense. There are hundreds of cooking shows online with varying levels of production and budgets, some with flashy openers and others filmed in dorm rooms. There are videos dedicated to quick five-minute instructional formats on "How to make yogurt" and "How to form a perfect quenelle," and more traditional cooking shows with the feel of television programs. Brent Young, a butcher at The Meat Hook in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, likes watching "crass, long, poorly edited" cooking videos for entertainment value, although he questions their ability to capture the delicate and complex art of some culinary skills, like butchering, where in-person instruction is needed to fully understand the technique. "Cookbooks," he adds, "are also more reliable".
Nevertheless, the most winsome online selections are in-the-home videos that catch unique skills that cookbooks rarely translate. A favorite of mine is "Cooking with Clara." With a plinking piano opening song and rudimentary credits, Clara Cannucciari, born in Chicago in 1915 to Sicilian-born immigrants, produces Depression-era meals like pasta with lentils and peppers with eggs. Shot and edited by her filmmaker grandson, Clara's videos are slow-moving, soothing portraits—less, perhaps, about the recipe and more about a specific time and place, when picking wild dandelions and forgoing cutting boards to pare vegetables in the hand were more common.
It could be the charm factor of a sweet old lady but there is something more authentic about Clara and other intimate kitchen clips like hers than, say, watching frosted-tipped Guy Fieri assemble "Guy-talian Nachos." Both are geared towards a specific audience and both are meant to instruct, but one channels a distinct personal experience and culinary tradition. Historian Amy Bentley, who teaches in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, remembers being excited the first time she watched a video of a grandmother making her signature dish posted on YouTube, because "such a phenomenon," she wrote in an e-mail, "seems to be the next logical step to preserving traditions in general."
YouTube taps into our humanistic impulse to document—to film, to have, to preserve not just recipes but the people who create them. It can give us a closer glimpse of a cook's life, more intimate knowledge of her technique, and most importantly, access to her so we can benefit from it. It's an unexplored conduit of both cooking tricks and something more—what color she paints her fingernails, how he swirls oil in a smoking-hot pan, how she keeps her kitchen.