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Food(52) For Thought

Say you want to make a bundt cake, but you’re worried you won’t get it just right.

You might opt to watch someone else do it by following along with a cooking video on YouTube, as opposed to reading a written recipe and periodically scrolling up and down to match pictures with the words that describe them. With a video, in addition to being guided through the process, you might also get a glimpse inside a chef’s home or a feeling, however faint, that you’re hanging out with another human.

So, here’s my question: Could the appeal of cooking videos, in both their functionality and friendliness, translate to the podcast format?

It certainly seems possible, particularly if listeners are given the capability to bounce between preparation steps in the event that the instructions move a little more quickly than they do, and if, keeping in mind that the audience is listening and not watching, the presenting chef makes a point to verbally illustrate how much oil should be in a pan. Extra points if said chef tells a story or two along the way.

This is exactly what happens in the podcast Play Me a Recipe, which got me excited about the viability of what you could call “cookalong” audio — despite, however, being one of only a handful of examples I could find within this theoretical genre. (The show takes direct editorial inspiration from one of those few other examples: Cal Peternell and Kristina Loring’s Cooking By Ear, which Loring described over email “as an experiment with a deep curiosity about the possibilities of more interactive podcasting” but that is no longer actively putting out episodes.)

Play Me a Recipe comes from the popular food media site Food52, for which instructional videos are its “bread and butter,” says Coral Lee, a podcast producer at the company. Cross-media experimentation was a result of staff wanting socially distanced food enthusiasts to feel less alone; my initial impression was that it could also make it more convenient to follow along: With audio alone, you still get the sounds and spirit of the kitchen and the personality and anecdotes of the chef, but without having to bob your head constantly from cutting board to computer.

There’s some technical innovation involved here. If you’re cooking at a different pace than the guiding voice — which you inevitably will be, as the episodes, like many cooking videos, are edited down from their full recorded length — you can skip around by podcast “chapters,” which correspond to the steps of the recipe. In one particular episode, chef Brinda Ayer even gives a verbal cue for when the potato-chopping stage is about to end.

One should note, though, that chapter-oriented design isn’t ubiquitously available across podcast platforms. Pocket Casts and Apple Podcasts enable navigation by chapters, but Spotify, which holds an increasing share of listenership, does not. This could make using the chapter feature during a live cooking session pretty clunky, depending on your preferred method of listening to podcasts, and to be honest, at first I found it difficult to figure out on the platforms that do support it. (For reference, here’s how it works on Apple Podcasts: Start playing an episode of, in this case, Play Me a Recipe, then, from the episode’s player screen, scroll down. To the right of the label “Chapters,” click “Show,” which will expand a tab below and display a recipe’s clickable chapters along with their corresponding time stamps.)

However, it turns out that the tricky accessibility of chapters might not be a problem for some listeners, at least when it comes to Play Me a Recipe. Lee tells me that the idea for the podcast came to be precisely because it looked like it could fill a hole in the podcast landscape, which was reason enough to pursue the idea, even with, “a bit naively, little concern about its viability.” As I had also observed, there didn’t seem to be many shows attempting to deliver a wholly functional audio “cookalong” experience, which she and I ended up acknowledging could be for good reason.

“We had expected people to really only listen to this while they were in their kitchen cooking,” she says, laying out the original scope of the show’s design, which is, admittedly, pretty narrow. But as listener feedback has indicated, some people take the podcast straight: Lee says a good number has reported listening to the show as entertainment alone, while doing things like walking outside or folding laundry.

There is a diversity of use cases within the show’s audience, which is modest but growing. Lee reports that, since launching in October 2020, weekly downloads for the show have hovered around 5,000 per episode within a week of publication, with unique listenership doubling the first week of March. Play Me a Recipe was designed as a strictly instructional concept, yet it appears to be embraced beyond — and sometimes even instead of — that function. Does this reflect poorly on the original conceit? Lee, for one, doesn’t think so. “Maybe it’s less service-oriented than we thought,” she says, and she finds that shift exciting: “I don’t think we’re tied to one vision of this show.”

I will say that, at the very least, you could cook one of the podcast’s recipes by just looking at the show notes and probably still gain something: Reading off of Spotify’s gentle, dark interface is a lot more pleasant than fighting pop-up ads on a brightly colored recipe blog. (The desktop version of the show’s Spotify page is somewhat messily formatted. It looks sharper on mobile.)

When Lee says of the show, “I think it’s a more acceptable format than people are expecting it to be,” she’s speaking to the range of applications that the show — with its famous figures, charming anecdotes, and ASMR-like sizzles — has demonstrated it can have since launching. This speaks to the other facets of a cooking show’s allure that I mentioned at the top: friendliness and familiarity, beyond pure function.

But, again, what excited me about this originally was its pragmatic potential. You’re telling me I could be guided through a recipe, with all the charm of a traditional cooking video, but be less likely to distractedly cut off my thumb nail? Rad.

I’m personally still rooting for this to take hold purely for its utility, and I think it can. Many Play Me a Recipe listeners are responding positively to elements of the production that include but aren’t limited to its function, but I think precisely that audio-based culinary instruction, when done right, is too strong of an asset to let pass by.