On Gourmet, the unwashed masses and browning.

Last week Gourmet magazine was euthanized at the ripe old age of 68 by its masters at Condé Nast. Christopher Kimball, founder/publisher/editor of Cook’s Illustrated and third-rate Garrison Keillor wannabe, promptly started mourning on the New York Times Op-ed page and sussed out who was really to blame for the magazine’s death: the internet, and everyone on it, seemingly. Certainly the instant pundits, anonymous Twitter users and poor “CM,” author of the recipe that is Google’s first return for “broccoli casserole,” which Kimball guarantees will be disappointing.[1]

According to Kimball, when the barrier of entry is lowered and more folks have an opportunity to peddle their wares in the marketplace of ideas, the room available to “thoughtful, considered editorial”‘ is severely diminished, because “everyone has an equal voice” on “this ship of fools.”

Hamilton Nolan countered the notion on Gawker, saying, “the democratic aspect of the internet that’s so terrifying to the old guard is not one that means that every opinion is equal; it just means that every opinion can be equally heard.” And that’s what makes it so easy to find thoughtful, considered editorial in the wilderness of the Web: the fact that people who have thoughtful, considered things to say about a topic and may very well be experts on that topic -  but might not have had the means, the time, or the inclination to speak on that topic in a traditional media outlet – can go ahead and talk about it.

Of course, there’s plenty of bullshit on the Internet, too, but it’s hardly like the apocalyptic vision Kimball has running through his head, because the shit isn’t just flowing freely. The trick is that on the Internet, every reader is their own gatekeeper. We don’t have to rely on any Christopher Kimballs to tell us which information is worth our time which experts and pundits pass muster and which editorial is thoughtful and considered. A reader keeps pointing and clicking and hunting and pecking, and the wheat is eventually separated from the chaff and the cream rises to the top.

1530291Now, the best part of all of this is that only a few days before the Gourmet news broke, I received a sample issue of Cook’s Illustrated in the mail. If you want thoughtful, considered editorial of the type that Kimball talks about, I suggest you run screaming in the other direction. Keith Dresser’s (obviously an “expert created from the top down and with a lifetime of experience”, otherwise he would not have made it onto Mr. Kimball’s hallowed pages) “How to Pan-Sear Shrimp,” insists that shrimp can be caramelized. This is wrong and happens to be a pet peeve of mine. The browning that happens when you pan sear shrimp, or a burger, or grill a steak, etc. isn’t caramelization at work, but the Maillard reaction, a complex series of chemical reactions that occur when the carbonyl group of a reducing sugar reacts with the amino group of an amino acid, usually in the presence of heat. This non-enzymatic browning results in an array of molecules and compounds responsible for positive and negative flavors and odors. In layman’s terms, it’s the chemical reaction that gives your meat that wonderful brown, flavorful crust.

Louis_Camille_MaillardThe results of the Maillard reaction (named after Louis-Camille Maillard, the French physician and chemist who was the first person to describe it) often look and taste the same as those of caramelization, but they’re two very different processes. The Maillard reaction involves both reducing sugars and amino acids, while caramelization involves only sugars undergoing various chemical reactions (among them, sucrose inversion, intramolecular bonding, isomerization and dehydration, condensation, fragmentation and polymerization reactions).

It’s a mistake that’s easy enough to make (even celebrity chef Robert Irvine talks about caramelizing meat in an episode of Dinner: Impossible), but the facts are easy enough to find on various food science web sites. Maybe Kimball should make sure is own house is in order before blaming the Internet for anyone’s woes.

[1] The first comment on the recipe reads: “I found this website from a New York Times article I read today and I am so happy I did! This was the best broccoli casserole ever and my family devoured it and they will not even eat broccoli most of the time.” There’s a special place in heaven for smart asses like that.

Images: Maillard Reaction diagram – Foodmate.net, Louis Camille Maillard – The Louis Camille Maillard organisation via Wikimedia Commons

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