Joan O'Keefe has water chestnuts, celery and carrots in her refrigerator and wants to know what she can cook. She sits down at her Apple IIe computer, located against a wall in her bedroom, and types the three ingredients into her keyboard. This is what she gets:
Water Chestnut: 2 recipes
Celery: 8 recipes
Carrot: 5 recipes
O'Keefe knows that there are two recipes that contain water chestnuts, eight that contain celery, five with carrots. She pushes another button. There are no recipes that contain all three, but there are two recipes that contain celery and carrots. The computer screen lists them:
Joan O'Keefe and her husband Steven, who both work at Clinton Computer in Clinton, Md., bought the Micro Cookbook a few years ago for about $40.
The software package contains 154 recipes that use a total of 165 ingredients. The recipes, which are categorized in 30 different classifications, can be called up by using up to two classifications and five ingredients.
For instance, you could ask the computer for all American desserts that contain ginger, milk, flour, eggs and baking soda. Or, you could just ask for a search on all the Italian dishes that can be made with zucchini.
The program will print out a shopping list by ingredient and quantity needed, and can print out the recipe as well, although O'Keefe said she can't seem to print out the recipes from her printer. It also has limited nutrition information on just a smattering of basic foods (not the recipes) and food buying and storage tips (Eggs: available in extra-large, large and medium size), although O'Keefe says much of that information is common knowledge.
In fact, she says assuredly, as she plugs in different ingredients and calls up different recipes (Lamb chops: Festive Lamb Chops, Stuffed Lamb Chops, Mustard Lamb Chops), "it the Micro Cookbook had to be invented by a man, by someone who doesn't cook." It's "kind of like a rough draft," she added.
She says that the program is limited in its output. It contains too few recipes, too few ingredients and she finds some of information, like the egg advice, to be useless. (Shopping lists also print out water as an ingredient to purchase.) Plus, it searches for recipes only by ingredients or classifications and can't look, for example, for all the recipes in a category such as "less than 400 calories."
According to Jay Butler, president of Virtual Combinatics, the Rockport, Mass., company that makes The Micro Cookbook, the program was developed by a technician, but the company used a few local chefs as recipe consultants. The recipes are pretty standard fare, and were written with commonly available ingredients in mind.
Butler added that the program has since been altered "to get more feedback" but that its real intention was to be simple, to be used as a tutorial to show users how a recipe program can work. The manual gives instructions and encourages users to type in their own recipes, said Butler. And the classification scheme is equally flexible so that users can add their own categories. "Aunt Millie's Favorites" for instance, could be a classification, he said.
The O'Keefes realize the possibilities of the program, and Joan O'Keefe, who says that she's "not interested in nutrition" but is a cost-conscious shopper, has plans to interface the program with her cents-off coupons.
By the time the tedious task of entering all the information is complete, says Steven O'Keefe, and The Micro Cookbook has been customized, you might as well have bought a blank data base and started from scratch.
Although critics have charged that computer cookbooks flop in practice because they don't save the user that much time from looking through a couple of cookbooks on the shelf, the real time savings may come with ready-made data bases with thousands of recipes on file, or disks that contain 10 or 15 cookbooks at a time.
In fact, Butler says his company is in the process of buying the rights to a number of cookbooks, and that it is working on a "wellness package" for the home market that will correlate recipes with nutrition and exercise.
The O'Keefes, too, have big plans for their home computer. Their two sons, ages 2 and 4, already play with it, and Joan O'Keefe says she would someday like to hook up her computer to a flat screen in her kitchen so that she can use it there. In the meantime, the O'Keefe's have to manage with a computer print-out of the family chores scotch-taped to their refrigerator door.