Tis the season, yet again, for holiday articles, holiday features, holiday recipes. Like an overflowing bathtub, they leak into every crack and crevice of our information stream, dripping into every email, headline, and billboard.
Last week, the boisterous blogosphere and its meeker relatives (newspapers, magazines) were fretting that there might not be enough Butterballs to meet demand for America's most gluttonous celebration, Thanksgiving. But in the top-floor offices of a building at 5th & Pike, overlooking Seattle's Westlake Square, they know better. In fact, they know everything about what America cooks and eats. A staff of 225 (editorial, tech, marketing, ad sales) keeps the conversations humming, literally billions questions of from casual visitors, answers from no fewer than ten million registered members.
Over 100,000 searches a month for chicken, almost as many for chili, followed by meatloaf. Pork chops, banana bread, apple pie. Easy meatloaf is the top recipe downloaded, over 200,000 times in the first half of November alone. "Good Old Fashioned Pancakes" came in second, squeaking ahead of Slow-Cooker Beef Stew and "World's Best Lasagna."
With an average of 30 million visitors a day, allrecipes.com is the world's top "digital food brand." It's in 23 countries and 12 languages, but the site shows its greatest power on its home turf at Thanksgiving. Instructional videos (how to brine the bird, how to roast the bird, how to make gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole). Pages and pages of FAQs, with supportive answers from readers over the years, on the order of "can I partially roast the turkey ahead of time?" (Don't even think about it.) "Can I freeze mashed potatoes?" (Yes, but don't use a microwave to reheat.)
As we know, Thanksgiving is way more than turkey. Almost every person surveyed by CreditDonkey.com recently said that the side dishes was what they like most about Thanksgiving, followed by family and friends. Turkey came in third or fourth. Mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, more gravy.
Recipe sites are said to be the fourth-most frequented internet category, after porn, search and social media. Allrecipes ranks in the top 500 websites worldwide, and always sees a big spike around the holidays as nervous bakers check recipes for apple pie and pumpkin soufflé.
"Our focus is to help our community of home cooks shine this holiday season," says an Allrecipes news release. "We're excited to share our extensive suite of resources, tools, and comprehensive collection of top-rated recipes with this tech-savvy generation and others to create a stress-free Thanksgiving."
The research proves it: for their holiday cooking, boomers rely more on printed cookbooks, millennials on recipe websites. And not just for "inspiration" but for shopping and cooking as well. Instructional videos, interactive discussion boards, social media posts all play an increasingly important part in the production of a holiday meal.
Allrecipes got its start in Seattle in 1997 because Tim Hunt, an early web entrepreneur, wanted a better cookie recipe and launched cookierecipe.com with what was then a most unusual content model: crowdsourcing. Before long, he and his colleagues had added cakerecipe.com, breadrecipes.com and so on, eventually rolling them all into one, allrecipes.com. Bill Moore, who had created Frappuccino for Starbucks, came on board as ceo. In 2006, Readers Digest bought the now-thriving company for $66 million so that it would have a digital platform to complement its position as a food and cooking publisher, and six years later turned around and sold it to Meredith Publishing (Better Homes & Gardens, Everyday with Rachael Ray, Family Circle, among others, plus radio and TV stations) for $175 million. Today it offers 18 websites in 12 languages across 23 countries and counts over a billion unique visitors a year
By the way, nearly half of the visitors to the US Allrecipe.com site say the plan to add "Italian" flavors to their holiday meal. (Italian is America's most popular ethnic cuisine; if you combine Mexican, Spanish and Cuban, Latin flavors would be in second place, followed by German and French.) But there's little unanimity on the rest of the meal.
In fact, Allrecipes.com provides a fascinating, state-by-state breakdown of what's going to be on the Thanksgiving table.
For example, the most popular appetizer in the western states, New England and Florida is stuffed mushrooms; in the Great Plains, it's cheese balls, while Pennsylvania goes for pumpkin dip. The stuffed mushroom states also swear by apple pie, while, not unexpectedly, it's sweet potato pie in the South. The Midwest goes for pumpkin, while Texas prefers to end with pecan.
One variation or other of a green bean casserole ends up on virtually every table in the country except for Texas, where they serve some sort of rice casserole. Nearly everyone goes for mashed potatoes, except Louisiana (au gratin). The allrecipes favorite is called "The Best Mashed Potatoes" and calls for Yukon Golds, butter, cream cheese and Parmesan.
There's unanimity on the cranberry sauce, however. The odd notion of a sweet fruit to accompany the holiday fowl dates back to Pilgrim times, and provides an annual bonanza for the Ocean Spray cooperative. It strikes many foreign visitors as strange, though. The French, for example, spice up their roast chicken with a dash of hot mustard, and their cold chicken with mayonnaise. Italians use mustard and sweet fruit in their mostarda, but no cranberries. Ocean Spray's French language website (mais oui! Of course they have one) doesn't bother trying to decide whether to translate the name as canneberge (Québecois) or airelle (Parisian); it's simply le cranberry.
But we digress. It is in the stuffing that we see the greatest regional variations. The western states and New England prefer a traditional sausage dressing. Cornbread is the choice of the southern states,from New Mexico to Florida, while there's a band of states across the heartland, from Utah to Pennsylvania, that prefer straightforward bread-&-celery stuffing. The Plains states, along with Idaho, go for a mushroom stuffing. There are variations, to be sure, the most popular of which would be the addition of oysters to the stuffing. At the first feasts, going back some 400 years now, bivalves were plentiful along coastal waters, and fowl was a mealtime extravagance; the oysters would have been added almost as filler.
Gravy? A touchy subject. Make-ahead (with turkey wings, perhaps?) or last-minute (great drippings, but risk of lumps?), there's no easy answer. In fact, lumpy gravy is the number one cause for calls to the Allrecipes help line. Adding canned soup or a powdered mix is sort of cheating, but adding mushrooms is okay. Giblets, yes or no? Up to you. A slug of sherry or Marsala? You bet!
Finally, a countdown video. There's an annoying commercial first, but the three-minute summary of what to do when is pleasantly reassuring. Especially the break, mid-afternoon, for a glass of wine.
Oh, about the Butterball "shortage"? Doubtful. Allrecipes doesn't keep track of individual producers, only that its readers want humanely raised, hormone free birds, but Mother Jones calls bullfeathers.