On the kitchen counter -- taking up about the same amount of space as a Kitchen-Aid mixer -- stands a white machine with a TV screen face. Beside it are 100 cookbooks in a 6-by-6-inch tray.
The books have been recorded on microfilm.Reproduced in 98-page blocks on "fiches" the size and thickness of a 4-by-6-inch file card, they leap into view when inserted in the viewing machine. An index guide, moved by hand, locates specific recipes. It's much faster than turning pages, and the recipe can be read several feet away.
Is this the newest breakthrough for cooks, the next "indispensable" piece of equipment in a the gadgetprone field of home cooking? Stephen Weinstein hopes so. His NEC company of Hyattsville designed and patterned the "CuisineVu" system and will have it on the market within 60 days, "just in time for June weddings," as he put it during an interview last week.
Sales projections are "big," he said. James Beard, the dean of American cooking teachers, is an enthusiastic ally, and Weinstein feels "If people like it as much as the professionals do, it's gonna be dynamite."
What Weinstein will be selling ("through high quality retail outlets and mail order -- you won't see it in discount houses") is a viewing machine built by Bell & Howell, plus a starter set of 15 microfilmed cookbooks and a catalogue that now contains 200 titles and will soon expand to 1,000. The viewer will cost $195, the cookbook set is $100 (for books with a retail value of $300) and the catalogue, which comes free with the cookbook set. It is $1.95, if purchased separately.
"We consider this a breakthrough," he said. "But it is an adjunct. We don't intend to replace cookbooks. People will still buy them and give them as gifts. The point is that cookbooks generally are used for reference. The machine takes some space, but the books themselves take up almost none.
"You can see the recipe across a room, you can even use it against the wall like a slide projector. Get a card dirty and you can wash it off. Damage it and we'll replace it for 25 cents. Furthermore, we will put someone's personal recipes on cards and make copies if they want to distribute them. Photograph a dish you've made or a platter arrangement and we'll reproduce it."
The cost of a "master" card (which contains up to 98 pages) would be $10. Prints would be 25 cents each.
NEC is a large "microfilm service organization." The idea of moving into the cooking field came to Weinstein, a dedicated eater, as he was searching for a way to market "micrographics," as he calls it, beyond his industrial and government clients. He decided the people who use cookbooks represent a very large potential market. Profit would come, he said, not so much from the machines, but from the sale of microfiches and services such as reproduction.
The first step was to adapt existing technology to create a viewer suitable for home use. Weinstein feels the CuisineVu has the necessary optical clarity and brightness of image and is of an appropriate size and weight. (The vital statistics are: 10 1/4 by 8 inches at the base, 16 inches high, weight 14 pounds, and a screen area 12 1/2 inches wide and 14 inches deep.)
More sophisticated models will be developed in time, but he promises this one will have trade-in value.
During the past year, Weinstein has been busy with the second vital component.He set about creating a microfilm library. With the advice of Beard and others, he has contracted with many major publishers for rights to books in print and with Kansas State University for their collection, one of the largest in the country.
"We have 'Joy of Cooking,' Beard, Julia Child, 'The Classic Italian,' 'Complete Mexican' and 'Complete Caribbean' cookbooks," he said. "Kansas State has Clementine Paddleford's collection of recipes, an original 'Fannie Farmer' and some works from the 1500s. We're not just choosing at random, though. Our aim is comprehensiveness. I want every title worth having.
"Book publishers," he added, "don't know what to make of it. They are cautious, but some of them are watching and probably think they will swallow us up if this goes."
Not everyone is sure it will. Counter space is at a premium in most home kitchens and however compact a machine the CuisineVu is, it will take up space. One cookware expert calls the machine "cumbersome and too expensive." He feels any breakthrough that successfully takes people away from cookbooks will involve computers.
Weinstein scoffs at competition from that direction. "The computers available for home use are big, awkward and lack sufficient memory," he said. "They can't do much with illustrations, either. Video discs might compete, but they are phenomenally expensive.
"You can use CuisineVu for visual display and it's more versatile and cheaper than a slide projector of comparable quality. I think we're where we should be: ahead of current technology but not at an outrageous price and with a machine that doesn't use much energy and is easy to maintain. All you be is change a light bulb."
So far, attempts to market audio cassettes of cooking lessons and recipes have fallen flat. Film treatments haven't worked either, but an ambitious series of video cassette cooking classes featuring Beard, Marcella Hazan and other teachers of note may be on the market later this year.
Meanwhile, Weinstein keeps buying cookbook rights and compiling alternative family uses for his CuisineVu. They include microfilmed musical scores, drama, chess, crafts, periodicals and reading instruction for children.
"But basically," he said, "we are in the cooking information business."
It's a business we probably will be hearing (and seeing) more and more about.