Download in the aisles

The Baltimore Sun

It is a good bet Alexander Graham Bell and Betty Crocker didn't see this coming:

Cooks in grocery stores, flipping open palm-sized phones that are rigged to retrieve recipes and create grocery lists from some mysterious ether called the Internet.

But Rachael Ray and Steve Jobs sure did.

The Food Network superstar will send you 40 recipes a month via text message, and the man behind Apple's iPhone has made it possible for you to search the Web and see glorious pictures of dishes you might cook.

I don't think anybody saw me coming. Me, a wannabe foodie in her middle years who refuses to admit when technology might have passed her by.

Determinedly, I test-drove an iPhone and a souped-up cell phone on loan from AT&T; to see if either one made it easier to plan a meal while standing in the middle of the grocery store.

It did not go well. I practically had to call the Geek Squad to help with dinner. But more on that later.

The fact is, technology moves relentlessly forward and cooks must move forward, too, or be tattooed as the ones who thought microwave ovens had no place in the kitchen.

"I am not Miss Techno-Savvy," said Tanya Wenman Steel, editor in chief for Epicurious.com, which has one of the most comprehensive Web and mobile recipe services out there.

"So I figure I am a good litmus test. Is this something I can figure out? Is this something I would like to do?"

The answer is, apparently, yes. Epicurious.com received an average of 183,000 views a month last year from users on mobile devices. Epi to Go, its dedicated mobile service, had an 18 percent increase in unique cell-phone users in 2007.

Mobile access to tens of thousands of recipes, plus ingredient substitutes, weight and measurement conversions, wine pairings, cocktail recipes and nutritional analyses appears to be the next step in the sophistication of the American palate.

A service for everybody?

'The fact is, this is not daunting to younger people. They think, 'Of course, I will have this service,'" Steel said.

Natanya Anderson, an Austin, Texas, working mother, is in the target audience.

"I've been using my mobile devices to manage my world for two or three years now," she said on her Bluetooth headset while driving home from work.

The busy marketing executive plans a week's worth of menus, records the ingredient lists on a spreadsheet and e-mails the result to her phone for grocery shopping.

"Cooking is my hobby, my release," she said. "And it was becoming harder and harder. All of a sudden, it is manageable."

But Anderson has an advantage I lack in my attempt to cook with my cell phone.

"I live and breath technology. It helps that I understand all the moving parts," she says.

Keith Hunniford, a Denver Internet consultant, designed listingly.com, a site where the whole family can add to-do items or grocery items to lists and access them anywhere. He has had more than 10,000 users since putting his site online early last year, and he's never advertised.

But there are techies out there who think this is kitchen overkill.

"It just seems like too much technology for something that isn't a problem," said Paul McNamara, online news editor and blogger at Network World, a trade publication for IT professionals.

He made fun of recipe retrieval on a hilarious blog entry, "5 Reasons You Need a Recipe Ready Cell Phone" (networkworld.com/community/node/22968).

"What you need at the grocery store is a high-quality, high-resolution display that is easy to modify. And the name of that display is paper," says Don Norman, an engineering professor at Northwestern University and the author of The Design of Future Things.

"Of all the stupid Internet food ideas I have heard, this one sounds not unreasonable," said Christopher Kimball of America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Illustrated magazine.

"But why do you need it? In the office, where everybody is spending 20 percent of their time doing nonwork work, people simply go to a Web site, print out a recipe, stick it in their pocket and stop at the grocery store."

That is my theory, too. But in the interest of this story, I set out for the grocery store with my pockets full of sleek, shiny, wireless devices and my head full of visions for a weekend of cooking.

But they were someone else's sleek wireless devices. My cell phone is as dated as go-go boots, and that's a problem for these new Web-access applications. Plus, you need a good-sized text-message budget.

While at the office, I went onto Epicurious.com and sent a recipe for a spicy breakfast pizza to the cell phone (for free). Rachael Ray had already fired off a handful of recipes to me there, too (for $2.99 a month). And there was allrecipes.com for last- minute inspiration.

At the store

I needed troubleshooting help almost immediately.

The iPhone could not access the Web from my neighborhood Giant. The manager said I could try standing out in the parking lot to see if I could pick up someone else's Wi-Fi network signal.

And Starbucks interfered with the signal at the Whole Foods store that is right next door. I kept getting coffee ads and music selections instead of recipes and ingredients.

I knew there was a way to solve this problem; I just didn't know what it was. So I used the souped-up cell phone, which picked up a signal even when I was way back in the meat department.

But by the time my grocery shopping was finished, I had tendinitis in my elbow from holding the cell phone just so in order to hold onto my Web-generated grocery list without having to repeatedly navigate the log-in gantlet for Epi to Go or for Ray's special application.

Worse, I ran into all sorts of friends who kept asking me the same question: "Why would you want to do it that way?"

The ingredient list from epitogo.com was consolidated, so I knew just how much butter I needed for everything I wanted to make from the site. Ray's ingredient list was a little more troublesome. I had to return to the recipe to see that "jumbo shrimp" meant "16, uncooked."

By the time I got home, I was in such a fury that my husband fled the house.

It only got worse when my computer decided that the recipes I was trying to print out were unwanted "pop-ups" and refused to provide me with copies.

I was, literally, cooking with my cell phone when my daughter came into the kitchen.

"Why would you do it that way?" asked the tech-savvy next generation.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

Help from the Internet

Here is a look at a couple of the mobile cooking applications out there - and more are arriving every day.

Epi to Go

How it works:

Epicurious.com, with more than 25,000 recipes, including those from Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines, is one of the oldest culinary Web sites, but it has had a makeover to make it mobile-ready.

Cost:

Free, but cell-phone data package fees, including texting and Web access, apply.

What we liked:

You can create a consolidated grocery list from the recipes you choose.

What we didn't like:

You have to enter your cell-phone number to unlock your recipe box. That's not a problem on an iPhone, but on a regular cell phone, you have to navigate the entire process again if you happen to close your phone.

Rachael Ray's Recipes on the Run

How it works:

This is one of a number of applications that you can download onto your mobile from AT&T;'s "Cool Tools" Web site (wireless.att.com/learn/ringtones-downloads/tools/). More than 40 recipes will be e-mailed to you every month and stored on your phone.

Choose a recipe or two and create a running - but not a consolidated - grocery list. As with Epi to Go, you can add your own items.

Cost:

The subscription fee is $2.99 a month for Ray's recipes. Data package fees apply.

What we liked:

You can "cross off" items on your grocery list as you purchase them; no need to keep scrolling up and down the list as you move through the aisles.

What we didn't like:

The grocery list isn't consolidated, so you may see any number of entries for extra-virgin olive oil. The recipes, though quick and simple, are often uninspired.

Other programs to check out

Listingly.com:

Keith Hunniford's listlingly.com allows multiple family members to add items anytime, from anywhere. It has both iPhone and mobile interface.

101cookbooks.com:

Heidi Swanson's popular site is actually a vegetarian blog, but she was quick to get her Web developer boyfriend to create an iPhone- friendly interface for all her recipes (101cookbooks .com/iphonerecipes).

Robert Parker Mobile Wine Guide:

The Maryland wine expert's tips and reviews are available for $4.99 a month. Check with your cell-phone service provider.

[ Susan Reimer]

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