Why the Kitchen Computing Dream of the 80s Never Caught On

There is a right way to think about seasoning, and it involves a flow chart.

Sep 19 2014, 2:30pm

Images: Terence Ficker/Computer Programs for the Kitchen

Hand-wringing over computerization and de-humanization has been around as long as the computer has, but as Commodores, Macintoshes and IBMs began showing up in houses in the 1980s, cultural anxieties about domestic life getting digitized arrived with them. 

True to its reputation as the center of the home, a focal point of these anxieties was the kitchen. "In Tomorrow's Space-Age Kitchens, Will Robots Rule?" one Washington Post headline asked, sounding both too retrograde and too contemporary to have been written in 1986. 

Such was tech anxiety in the Reagan years; everyone was getting computers but no one knew what to do with them yet.

One of the oddest artifacts from this period is the cookbook/computer programming handbook Computer Programs for the Kitchen, by Terence F Dicker. Written in 1984, just as the personal computer (microprocessor, as it was often called) gained traction as a consumer good after a few slow years on the market, the book is a curious mishmash of anthropology and computer history combined with a programming textbook. It is also chockablock with charmingly outdated 80s notions of haute cuisine—and couture!—and less-charmingly outdated considerations of who, exactly, is doing the home cooking.

Computer Programs for the Kitchen seems to be written for an audience that has zero knowledge of either cooking or computers

The book begins, rather ambitiously, by looking at the history of human civilization and how the development of agriculture spurred a need for computing devices and calendars. From there, it's straight into a chapter on programming your computer to store recipes using BASIC.

But Computer Programs for the Kitchen seems to be written for an audience that has zero knowledge of either cooking or computers; a curious alien, perhaps. In addition to building a recipe storage program, Chapter 5 outlines the structural features of a menu, in case the reader has never eaten a meal, and offers "proven menus" sure to impress your boss or other important dinner guests (Oysters Rockefeller, anyone?). There are dinner party preparation flowcharts (p 142), figures detailing the many kinds of pots found in a kitchen (p 149), and a table that lists the "mother" sauces that can be modified to make a range of different sauces.

The final chapter is a guide to becoming an insufferable 80s wine snob—it is titled "Is Wine Important?" and offers advice like, "The following list of French wines should be programmed into your computer…"

It's true that, in a sense, cooking is computational. As Dicker explains: "A recipe is a specific list of instructions and ingredients, as is a computer's program. What you cook with, a stove, pots and pans, etc. are the hardware." 

Despite its bizarre organization and execution, the idea of the book is that once you build a recipe storage program, you can enter in all the recipes you use regularly and search by ingredient, calories, or cost to put together a menu.

This is not the only piece of recipe software from the era. As Dicker points out, the computer had already snuck into the kitchen by 1984, in the form of less complex chips in devices such as coffeemakers. There was other recipe storage software too, including the IBM-compatible Recipe Writer from 1985. A company called Women's Ware marketed recipe-storing software to women by packaging it on little hangers, to make sure ladies got the message that computing could be fun, just like shopping! It was a fairly common type of software in fact, and one that helped sell the overall usefulness of microcomputers in the home, before anyone really knew what to do with one.

There is a right way to think about seasoning, and it involves a flow chart

In the introduction to his book, Dicker tries to make the computer sound like a vital tool in the kitchen rather than a confusing, alienating gadget: "The computer belongs in the kitchen, and the sooner you start interacting with it, the sooner the foundations for culinary excellence will be laid."

It has to be said, though, that Dicker's is a pretty dudely approach to cooking. Computer Programs for the Kitchen takes the task of cooking—something that needs to be done every day—into the more masculine realm of the homebrew hobbyist. The shortest distance between here and dinner would involve flipping through the clipped recipes or cookbooks you already have saved in print form, not in building a computer program and manually re-entering all one's recipes into it. 

Only someone who does not need to make dinner right now with a toddler attached to their leg has the luxury of turning it into a weekend-tinkering pursuit. In the 80s, just as computers were becoming a domestic object (that is to say, a type of object usually aimed at and purchased by women), here is a book that helps masculinize the task of home cooking, something that even in the 80s was still mostly done by women—with or without the use of Women's Ware software.

There is a clinical rationality to the recipes in Computer Programs for the Kitchen, and a tone that probably intimidates the novice cook the book is supposedly trying to reach. While promising to simplify the act of cooking, it ends up taking a lot of the creativity out of it. This is not one of those "a little of this, a little of that—taste as you go!" kind of books. There is a right way to think about seasoning, and it involves a flow chart. The recipe chapter has sample recipes that can be added to your recipe database (once you build it) and the header information at the top of every recipe looks like this:

Yankee Bean Soup

Equipment: heavy pot 

Cooking Process: boiling 

Time: 3 hours 


Yield: 6-8 oz. portions 

That blank slot for "Emotion" is bothersome. The concept is supposed to allow a human element into the database: it's where, according to the chapter on database building, you can write "Dad's favorite" or "Chris likes this without tomatoes." It's really just for general notes, but it makes "emotion" an optional garnish, like a sprinkle of parsley, instead of what fundamentally drives cooking.

Which makes me wonder: Who is this book for? Perhaps the same hackers that are responsible for the oldest torrent on the Pirate Bay: no, not porn as one might expect, but a recipe book. Top Secret Recipes E-Book reveals the "secret" recipes for name-brand and chain restaurant dishes, including California Pizza Kitchen's "famous" Smashed Pea and Barley Soup, Boston Market Meatloaf, and Chevys Mashed Potatoes. (I need to know: Is pea and barley soup really the standout menu item at California Pizza Kitchen?)

If you're going to pull out your knives and pans and everything (your hardware), why would you want to make something that tastes like settling for convenience?

The author of Top Secret Recipes e-book, Todd Wilbur, has published ten print versions of these Top Secret Recipe cookbooks over the years, one of which may be sitting neglected somewhere in your own parents' house. Amazon's author page calls him a "food hacker," which actually makes a lot of sense. It also explains why this approach to food might be popular with hackers, coders, and other computational types. It's exactly the kind of cooking you might do if you A) never had to learn how to cook (which would be likely if you grew up male in the 1970s or 80s), and B) ate a lot of fast food.

A lot of the recipes in this torrent are lauded as a "cinch" to make, but not as "cinchy" as plopping down in a booth at CPK and letting someone bring you the soup. It raises the question: If you're going to pull out your knives and pans and everything (your hardware), why would you want to make something that tastes like settling for convenience? Vending-machine Mrs. Fields cookies don't actually taste good, but they do taste like something a marathon coder could get accustomed to after years of treating food like an afterthought, something dispensed from a machine on the way to the elevator. Soylent, anyone?

Would building your own highly sensitive recipe-storing program—one that takes into account "Emotion" and the best wine pairings for Oysters Rockefeller—counteract this kind of cooking that considers taste an afterthought? Or would it only exacerbate it? The answer appears to be that both these books seem expressly designed for those who treat cooking as a hobby—who can build the recipe program or tinker with food hacking projects on the weekends—rather than someone in charge of everyday meals.

Recipe storage programs didn't catch on with many home users, but retailers still try, as with this computer fridge that may or may not have ever gone to market. Many of these technologies fail simply because they don't match up with the way people really cook: messy, provisional, and imprecise. Moreover, they often require the same amount of—or additional—work. 

We don't need the fridge to alert us we are low on milk if we are in front of it looking at the screen; we can just open the door. Similarly, recipe storage software presumes the chef is a blank slate. Anyone who is in charge of daily cooking will have recipes built up through use, which are likely already in a print storage device of some kind, and these will have to be manually entered into the computer before the program can be useful at all.

Software and hardware development remains dominated by men, while domestic chores aren't

Despite this, we do use computers in the kitchen more now than ever. Pinterest and food blogs are many people's go-tos for recipes nowadays, and because of this, the  kitchen tablet stand and splatter screen are gaining traction as kitchen gadgets. But Pinterest and blogs are much more qualitative than recipe storing software ever was. Food blogs are all about context; the story of the recipe. Pinterest is driven by consumer fantasies and wishful thinking as much as it is by a logic of storage and retrieval. And both can help us find online versions of recipes we already know and use.

The divide remains one along familiar lines: Software and hardware development remains dominated by men, while domestic chores aren't, and thus all too often the technology isn't designed to suit women. The real problem with kitchen computing isn't the possibility of a robot takeover; it's that women still do most of the domestic labor, and a recipe storage program really only creates more work.

According to a Pew Research Center report from 2013, mothers spend over 17 hours weekly doing housework and 13.5 hours weekly caring for children, while fathers do just 10 hours weekly of housework and seven hours of childcare. Since men have slowly been increasing their share of housework and childcare over the decades, we can assume proportionally lower participation in those tasks for men in the 1980s. More than recipe software that stores a menu for your wife to make when the boss comes to dinner, what we need is kitchen tech that targets those most likely to use it, or even promotes a more equitable distribution of labor.