The Cyber Cupboard
I keep waiting for computer manufacturers to design a machine that is safe to set near my stove. That way when I called up a recipe via the Internet, or accessed a file, I could read the information off the screen as I cooked. The keyboard would need some sort of coating so that spills would not seep in between the keys, and the whole thing would be heat proof so that leaving it near a hot oven wouldn't melt its innards. That machine doesn't exist, but computers -- so much a part of our work lives -- are inching their way into our kitchens. Whether packaged on a floppy disk or CD-ROM, cooking software is booming. In my mother's day, The Betty Crocker Cookbook came in a three-ring binder, complete with goofy cartoons and advice about the four basic food groups. Today, Betty comes to your kitchen via floppy disk and CD-ROM, with updated advice to new cooks on how to set up a kitchen and information on ways to eat for the prevention of major diseases (Lifestyle Software Group, 63 Orange St, St. Augustine, FL 32084). Betty is not the only one who has found her way onto the screen: The new cooking software ranges from the Family Circle Cookbook (Pinpoint Publishing, Box 7329, Santa Rosa, CA 95407) to the Urban Peasant (Lifestyles Software Group) to Blender, a CD-ROM magazine that features a column by Biker Billy, a hot-tempered television chef (Dennis Publishing, 212-302-2626).Much of this software attempts to be more than a depository of recipes; many programs help you organize your shopping list and keep track of what is in your kitchen, as well as allow you to add your own recipes to the existing database. One particularly friendly program is Mangia!, from Upstill Software (1442-A Walnut St., Berkeley, CA 94709), which is installed via a floppy disk. Its main feature, the 'Recipe Browser,' allows you to choose the way you want your recipes categorized -- by nationality, cooking method, or main ingredient. Most of the offerings are taken from back issues of Cook's Illustrated, with a few from assorted cookbooks thrown in. Once you call up the recipe of your choice (for example, Chicken Saut with Curry and Basil), far more than an ingredient list and instructions appear. On the right side of the screen are ratings for everything from tartness to kid appeal to portability. On a scale of one to 10, the chicken saut got a two for tartness and an eight for cholesterol. The program allows you to edit and add comments to any recipe, and gives you the chance to change the ratings. Mangia! also has an electronic 'pantry,' which allows you to list all the items on your shelves and in your refrigerator. (Unfortunately, merely entering items into your virtual pantry doesn't make them appear. How grand life would be if typing the words '1 pound Belgian chocolate' meant you had some in the cupboard!) Entering all that information every time you stop by the store or finish off the cornmeal at first struck me as a bit tedious. However, I then thought about how my husband and I both come home from work tired and hungry, and dreaming up a menu is sometimes a far more imposing task than actually preparing the meal. With the contents of your kitchen entered into Mangia!, you can then set a few parameters -- such as preparation time, course, and/or main ingredient -- and the computer presents you with a list of recipes that can be made with what's in your kitchen. Voile, the question of what to make for dinner is solved. Like Mangia!, the Micro Cookbook (Pinpoint Publishing, Box 7329, Santa Rosa, CA 95407), also installed via floppy disk, aims to help you organize your kitchen and recipes. Although it lacks Mangia!'s pantry feature, Micro Cookbook has some useful search functions. If the fruit flies in your kitchen have reached critical mass, for example, you can search for all the dessert recipes that call for bananas. If you also have a hankering for ginger, you can search for bananas and ginger. If you're not that picky, you can ask for all recipes with bananas or ginger. Clicking on the little red heart icon gives complete nutritional information about the recipe you've selected. If you want a good base of recipes in a cookbook program, choose Mangia!, for the selections in the Micro Cookbook all come from food manufacturers or industry groups. The Boonville Baked Bean recipe, for example, was supplied by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. The best use for programs such as Mangia! and the Micro Cookbook is to painstakingly enter in your own recipes as a way to catalogue and organize them. This strikes me as ultimately a far more organized recipe library than my present one, which includes recipes scrawled on backs of envelopes and odd scraps of paper. And both Mangia! and the Micro Cookbook can print recipes to the sort of specifications cooks like, such as on a 4x6 card. Access to endless printouts sounds delightful to me -- a soiled card can be tossed in favor of a clean one, and there's no need to copy down a recipe in order to share it with a friend. Of the well-known cookbooks showing up on CD-ROM, The Southern Living Cookbook, distributed by the Lifestyle Software Group (63 Orange St., St. Augustine, FL 32084), piqued my interest. Although I do not own this cookbook in bound form, my sister does -- and she has shared with me many wonderful recipes, including Praline Pound Cake and Cinnamon Twist Coffee Cake. (Unlike those spoilsports throughout the rest of the country, Southerners do not shy away from ingredients such as butter, heavy cream, pecans, and bacon.) All these wonderfully excessive recipes from the bound Southern Living Cookbook are on the CD-ROM. The Southern Living Cookbook CD had my favorite search function of all. You can look for a recipe with cocoa and baking soda but not eggs. But with this CD, one can easily get sidetracked into categories such as 'Universal Techniques,' in which a narrator -- whom I would have liked a lot better had she had a Southern accent -- describes how to measure a cup of flour. In the 'Photo Gallery' are pictures of certain dishes, complete with about 20 seconds of narration. The spoken text also appears on the screen. These features add very little to the substance of the cookbook. In fact, they are downright annoying. I don't need a disembodied voice reading me the three lines of text on the screen. I would rather learn something -- a new method of folding in egg whites, the origin of an unusual recipe name, whether a certain dish freezes well. Rather than invest effort in pictures and theme music, I would have preferred that the publishers explore ways to use multimedia to enhance the product they already have. CD-ROMs have also made it into the wine cellar. Complete with sound and video, the CD-ROM Wines of the World (Multicom Publishing, 1100 Olive Wy, Suite 1250, Seattle, WA 98101) offers practical advice to wine drinkers. The beautiful photographs throughout make this product quite appealing. By choosing 'pinot gris,' you not only learn about the grape's taste and penchant for sandy soils, but you also see a lovely picture of an enticing bunch of grapes. Information is divided into three general categories: wine quality, wine appreciation, and wine regions. Deeper into the program, you can learn all about certain grapes: what sort of soil they prefer, where they grow, and what kind of wine they make. One lesson that will quickly make you a more impressive wine snob is the tutorial on reading wine labels from various countries. With a little practice, you will know where to find the name of that German province or a certain French commune. One three-minute video on Wines of the World gives you a cursory look at how the grape on the vine turns into the wine in the bottle. It's the sort of video played in unending loops at wineries. Other videos show you how to use various corkscrews to open bottles and how to remove bits of broken cork from the wine. Under 'wine appreciation' is a list of suggested wines to drink with certain dinners. With goose, it says, try Alsace pinot blanc or cabernet Franc; Chianti with casseroles; and pinot noir or zinfandel with offal. Between this CD and software such as Mangia!, a dinner party is practically planned. In my perfect computerized kitchen, I would watch a pro prepare a dish much like cooking programs on television. However, I would get to stop the person and ask questions -- or at least get to watch a certain portion over again. Cooking software will undoubtedly improve as manufacturers and publishers learn more about the medium. Getting that kitchen-proof hardware will probably take a little bit longer.