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YouTube: The Ultimate How-To Guide to Life

Searching for a pasta recipe online and discovering so much more

By Leah Rozen

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth a hundred thousand. Especially if it's less than five minutes long.

I'm talking about YouTube videos that show you how to do things, like instructing the ignorant — that would be me — on the intricacies of setting a mouse trap, preparing and eating a prickly pear, opening a recalcitrant jar lid and getting rid of water stains on a plush carpet.

YouTube will celebrate its eighth birthday in February. The video-sharing website started humbly in 2005 above a pizzeria and a Japanese restaurant in San Mateo, Calif. It grew like gangbusters from the start and was purchased by Google for $1.6 billion a year later.

While originally a site for teenagers to post videos of their skateboarding stunts and the like, it quickly blossomed to become an all-encompassing, full-service site containing video clips old and new, entertainment, historical footage, political announcements and lots more. These days, according to YouTube, roughly 60 hours of new videos are uploaded a minute and 800 million unique viewers tune in every month.

Count me in. While I watch new movie trailers, vintage film clips, old TV ads and other cool and diverting stuff, one of YouTube's primary functions for me in recent years has been instructional. I almost never consult a how-to book anymore for anything. YouTube has become my all-purpose DIY consultant.

I realized how totally I've come to rely on YouTube the other night when I became temporarily obsessed with making spaghetti cacio e pepe, a simple Italian pasta made with spaghetti, salt, pecorino-romano cheese and freshly grated black pepper.

First, I Googled a few recipes to compare and contrast. They differed about how to make the cheesy sauce, when to add the pepper, the amount of pasta water to include in the sauce, etc.

Frustrated, I went to YouTube and typed "spaghetti cacio e pepe" into the search box. "Bam!" as Emeril Lagasse would say. Up popped page after page listing videos of professional chefs and home cooks alike making their versions of the dish. Many of these videos were in Italian, but there were also a few in German and French.

My Italian mostly is limited to restaurantese, but it does include "spaghetti," "formaggio" and "pepe," so I found myself happily watching and halfway understanding several Italian videos in which one enthusiastic chef after another made this simple but delicious pasta. Some used olive oil, some added butter. Some heated the freshly ground pepper in a sauté pan. All smacked their lips upon tasting the results. Molto bene, indeed.

After watching five different videos, I figured I had the hang of it and made my own version. Let's just say it'll be better next time. (I must not have used enough cheese.)


The point of all this is that when you're watching how-to cooking videos in Italian on YouTube, you realize that the online site and its anyone-can-post-a-video format is way more than just a form of entertainment with cute kitty antics.

Yea, I say unto you, YouTube is here with the answers to all of life's big questions. OK, maybe not the big ones, but certainly the small nagging questions, like what's the best way to debone a fish, change the battery on an old iPod and get to the next level on Angry Birds? I should know; I've gone to YouTube for answers to all of 'em.

Just this minute I typed "Is there a God?" into the search box on YouTube. It didn't provide a definitive answer, but it did come up with dozens of related videos offering differing views. They include Stephen Hawking lecturing in his electronic voice, many preachers and a video illustrating the lyrics to "There Is a God," country singer Lee Ann Womack’s tune in the affirmative.

I suspect that the God question may be beyond YouTube's capacities. But if I want to know how to make icebox cake, change a bicycle chain or defeat that pesky raccoon that keeps stealing the food out of my bird feeder, I know that somewhere in the world, someone else has already dealt with this problem and has uploaded a video on YouTube to show how.

Who knows? Someday soon you may type "spaghetti cacio e pepe" into YouTube’s search box and I'll pop up, grinning broadly as I stir my pasta, making rhapsodic sounds as I taste a forkful and then exclaiming, "Molto bene!"

Leah Rozen, a former film critic for People magazine, is a freelance writer for The New York Times, More and Parade. Read More
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