Last year, Byrne Hobart wrote a great piece on OneZero about why recipe blogs make you scroll through pages and pages of personal backstory, quirky anecdotes and more before they finally give you an actual recipe. I love to cook, so I encounter these blogs all the time.
Hobart concluded that all the often-pointless text is a way to game Google’s algorithm. Short recipes are relatively generic, and don’t tend to do well from an SEO perspective. By bulking up their pages with personalized text, recipe bloggers are maximizing their chances that Google will consider their page unique and send more readers their way.
GPT-3 from OpenAI is renowned for its ability to mimic nearly any form of human writing. So I decided to see if it could mimic the kinds of posts that Hobart describes.
I gave GPT-3 the following prompt:
I went on one of those recipe blogs that includes recipes with long, personal backstory before the recipe itself. Here is one of the posts I found:
Recipe for Carrot Cake
Here’s what it returned:
I used to go to the library and read cook books when I needed a break from my work. I would pick a random recipe, and then look up all the ingredients at the market. Sometimes I would buy them, but if I didn’t have everything on hand, I would make a mental note of what to buy the next time. On one of those days, I picked a cake recipe. I had all the ingredients except for carrots, so I substituted zucchini. It turned out very well, and so it became a family favorite. It was zucchini cake with cream cheese frosting.
Then the zucchini season was over, and we were forced to use carrots in its place. We didn’t like it as much then. But since we had all the ingredients on hand, we still made it.
Now, everyone calls this cake “carrot cake”, even though it has no carrots in it. No one knows that it used to be zucchini cake with cream cheese frosting. I’m not sure if anyone will actually read this far, but if you do — let me know if you like carrot cake as much as I do.
I smiled. Yes, I liked carrot cake as much as she did.
But it was too bad that no one knew the history of carrot cake. I have the same problem with the zucchini cake with cream cheese frosting — everyone thinks it is carrot cake now. And no one would know that it used to be zucchini cake with cream cheese frosting.
I have another problem with carrot cake. I don’t really like it. But I like to eat it.
I’ve heard that the cream cheese frosting is the reason why I don’t like carrot cake. So I decided to make carrot cake with cream cheese and no frosting.
I made Carrot Cake for my husband’s birthday a few days ago. Here is the recipe I used:
Carrot Cake Recipe from Food Network
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 eggs, at room temperature
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
3 cups shredded carrots (about 4 to 5 medium)
1 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
Cream Cheese Frosting
1 8-ounce package of cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease and flour three 8-inch cake pans and set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk eggs until frothy. Whisk in brown sugar and oil until fully incorporated. Whisk in flour mixture until just combined, then fold in carrots and walnuts.
Divide batter evenly among prepared pans and bake until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, about 30 to 35 minutes, rotating pans halfway through. Let cool 10 minutes before removing from pans and let cool completely on a wire rack.
Using an electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat cream cheese and butter on medium speed until well-combined, about 1 minute. Add confectioners’ sugar and continue beating until combined, scraping down sides of bowl as needed.
Place 1 layer of cake on a serving platter and top with 2/3 cup frosting. Repeat with remaining cakes and frosting.
I think it nailed the form. We get a rambly, personal, semi-coherent story to kick things off (“I have another problem with carrot cake”), which goes on for several paragraphs, just as on real recipe blogs. There’s some kind of story of an interaction with another family member (“ I smiled. Yes, I liked carrot cake as much as she did”), and even a bad joke (“I don’t really like it. But I like to eat it.”)
Finally, we get to the recipe, which GPT-3 presumably made up. It kinda, sorta sounds like a real recipe for carrot cake. We even get a sub-recipe for cream cheese frosting. I’m tempted to bake it and see if it actually yields edible cake.
My favorite part, though, is that the imaginary author of this imagined blog post seems to acknowledge that they lifted the recipe itself from the Food Network. That fits perfectly with Hobart’s conclusions, where he says that “Recipes are a commodity; you can copy them as soon as you have the text.”
As Hobart shares, many real food bloggers probably take recipes from sources like the Food Network, liven them up with tons of pointless personal details, and publish them as blog posts. Only GPT-3, though, would actually cop to the practice.