#thestew and why recipes go viral

#thestew a dish by Alison Roman that has gone completely viral

If you were born in 1981 (cutoff age for millennials) and/or follow the New York Times Cooking columnist, cookbook author and foodie starlet Alison Roman then you will recognize this image immediately. For those who need an introduction, this Spiced Chickpea Stew with Coconut and Turmeric was created by Roman herself, published to the New York Times website a couple years ago and is now one of their most popular recipes with over 6,000 ratings online. Shortly after its publication the recipe went completely viral online and now has it’s own hashtag on Instagram #thestew with over 5,000 posts.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Roman for my review of her newest cookbook Nothing Fancy (you can read my interview here and review of her cookbook here). In preparing for the interview I couldn’t help but become somewhat obsessed with trying to understand why #thestew and Roman’s now infamous Salted Chocolate Shortbread Cookie #thecookie went so viral. Like Roman herself, these receips try to present themselves as approachable, something even the non-cook home cook can make with a few pantry staples and simple steps. I had eaten #thestew at someone else’s house about a year ago. It was for bookclub and unsurprising we probably spent just as much time discussing #thestew as we did the book we read. The stew itself had become such a phenomena of people singing its praises that it created somewhat of backlash from people who had made the stew and didn’t quite get what all the fuss was about. Holed up at home yesterday on a rainy afternoon scouring the pantry in search of inspiration for dinner, I once again thought of the stew and decided to give it a try myself.

I started by reading through the 1,000 plus comments of the recipe on the New York Times website. Based on these comments and my recollection that the stew was actually a little bland, I decided to make the following adjustments: I used dry chickpeas instead of canned (letting them soak and them simmering them for about an hour before starting to cook). I also used one can of coconut milk instead of two, added chopped lemongrass, fresh chopped turmeric and at the end added a tablespoon of fish sauce and squeezed in fresh lime juice from one lime. The stew was good but not great. The addition of greek yogurt topped with extra spice was a must. To be honest, I prefer a traditional Moqueca (a traditional Brazilian fish stew) which I made last week in even less time with less ingredients (and my counters and cutting boards weren’t stained yellow from all the turmeric). Yes, #thestew was relatively easy to make but just wasn’t anything to write home about and probably not something I would cook again. I was then left to ponder once again how did this dish go so viral?

Of course the rise of Instagram and it more recently becoming a social platform to display and promote gorgeous, drool worthy food pictures (aka food porn) plays a serious role in whether and how any given recipe goes viral. Roman’s stew itself is certainly photogenic, so much so that those cooking it started photographing the dish and then reposting and tagging it to Instagram. Roman, who now has over 300,000 followers on Instagram has mastered the art of engaging with her audience (all those non cook, home cooks and celebrity chefs included) by reposting to her own Instagram Stories her fans making her recipes and so it goes. Yes, the recipe is very pretty and relatively easy to cook but is it really good enough to make the top ten New York Times recipes? I would argue the line needs to be drawn between a recipe that is popular (because it’s a recipe of the moment and everyone you know is making it) and a recipe that is popular because it is really that good.

Even though it’s not a stew or soup I can’t help but make the comparison to the Silver Palate’s Chicken Marbella also with over 1,000 ratings on the New York Times website. It’s a recipe that is just as accessible and easy to follow but one that has truly stood the test of time. It’s a no fail crowd pleaser and can best of all be prepared in advance of any gathering. I’m forced to wonder if the recipe which was first published in the Silver Palate Cookbook in 1982 (well before most millennials were born) had been published today and been promoted on Instagram with its own #silverpalate chickenmarbella would it also go viral? I’ll file that one under #classicrecipesthatshouldgoviral.

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