recipes paper cookbooks electronic digital analog online

I’ve been a passionate advocate for paper cookbooks for some years. I love them equally for their beauty and practicality.

At the same time, I’ve been watching as the Internet’s portfolio of recipes has blossomed, and the search functions that allow you to hunt them down have gradually improved. More and more cooks have brought their devices into the kitchen–yet I and many others wondered: how do you cope with the small, single screen? How do you protect a basically fragile, complex machine in a humid, physically stressful environment? And what about all the extra features of a cookbook: the author’s headnotes, the company of other well-curated recipes, the sidebars, the paper pages you can scribble on with your thoughts and additions?

I don’t have a smartphone–our town is surely one of the last redoubts in the country where no cell service is available–so I have only toured iCookbook and other excellent cooking apps on my laptop.  But when Key Ingredient, a crowd-sourced recipe database site, contacted me about its Recipe Reader device, which it markets as a “Kindle for the Kitchen,” I thought it was time for me to step up and see if my paper biases were unfounded.  I do love a gadget.  I use and love a Kindle, too.  Let’s give it a try, I thought.

Like the Kindle, the Recipe Reader essentially syncs with just one place on the Internet–the database of recipes hosted by Key Ingredient.  So I signed up for the database, uploaded a few of my recipes, downloaded a few others, and set to work.

I was taken, at the start, with the Recipe Reader’s appealing physical properties. It can be canted at a low or high, practical incline for countertop use.  It’s durable, and the seamless surface wipes off cleanly when (inevitably) you spill or splash.

At first, it was just plain fun to see my own recipes pop up on the screen, with my own photos and words.  I like the way the quantities were automatically bolded and the font sizeable.  It was fun playing with the timers and the metric conversion tool and the substitutions glossary.

But as I worked with it, I grew more frustrated. First of all, it was annoying not to see more of the recipe at once.  Good cooks look ahead to budget their time, anticipate problems, and see where they can save steps. They look behind to check and make sure they didn’t omit something, and to repeatedly scan the ingredients list.  I could scroll up and down, but that’s something not usually necessary with a full-format paper cookbook.

And as much as I liked the timer, conversion, and substitution tools, I didn’t want to have to switch screens to see them.  I wanted to be able to convert on the fly, by touching “1/2 cup butter” and seeing it magically change to “8 tablespoons butter” to “1/4 pound” to “113 3/8 gr.” as I wished.  I wanted to be able to touch “Great Northern beans” and see “cannellini,” “navy beans,” “gigantes,” and “pinto beans” come up as substitutes, with mutatis mutandis instructions.  I wanted to be able to selectively scale up recipes by having some kind of multiplying function right there on the screen.

In short, I wanted magic.

I know there are apps out there that address many of these concerns.  And I know that all of this is achievable in a single device.  In a way, just using the Recipe Reader (despite its flaws) made me realize that.  I’m now open to the idea that an electronic device can have a home, and a happy one, in the kitchen.

The bottom line is this: What’s a recipe, for you? Is it just information–a formula? Or is it a complete learning experience?

The things I love about paper cookbooks remain unchanged and hard to duplicate–the sense of customized, sustained attention, the physical heft and portability, the permanence, the voice.  It’s a tangible artifact for a tangible act –  the act of cooking.  To compete with the accessibility of online recipes, cookbooks have had to step up in quality, usefulness, and longevity.  And they have. The best of today’s cookbooks have a thoroughness and perceptiveness not yet achieved by many apps.

What I think I’ll love about digital and online recipes, someday, is the speed and readiness of the information. But there will have to be a lot of information, and it will have to be high-quality, deeply steeped in reference material, and as instantaneous as thought, before I’ll readily set aside the slower pleasures and practicality of paper.

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