Downloading Dinner On line: Food companies, gourmet magazines and information-sharing cooks have moved onto the Internet.

February 28, 1996|By Fred Tasker | Fred Tasker,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

Home cooks: It's time to overcome your cyber-phobia and learn to love the Internet. It can do marvelous things for you, even if you're a technological turkey and a clumsy cook to boot.

Now, don't panic. We, unlike all those other writers, are going to ++ be concrete here. We're going to go slowly, and we're going to define each term as we use it.

I know, I know. From the outside, the Internet seems like a bottomless soup of data bits floating somewhere -- in outer space, maybe -- so scattered as to be worthless, like a library full of books whose pages have been blown loose by a hurricane.

Relax. Surfing the net for food info is easier than it sounds. I had never spent a minute on the Internet until recently, and in two days at a computer terminal, I was able to find thousands of recipes, restaurant reviews, articles about chefs, tips on dining etiquette, food trivia games, chat lines to gab electronically with other users and lots more.

First, a definition: The Internet is merely a few million phone lines (or fancier lines like fiber-optic cables) linking computers in homes and businesses around the world. All you have to do is ask it questions, and it will open up to you that whole world of information.

Possibilities range from the mundane to the ridiculous.

Mundane example: There's nothing in the house but cornmeal and chicken, and you've got to make dinner. You just tap the words "cornmeal" and "chicken" into one of the information sites on the Internet, and it will fill your computer screen with a recipe for chicken pie with cornmeal crust.

An information site, by the way, is a single database of information put on the Internet by a company -- Pillsbury, perhaps -- or an individual. You tap into it, it tells you what you want to know.

Ridiculous example: You're browsing the Internet and you come upon a group of information sites labeled "Spam." Scratching your head, you enter one of them and find a database containing literally thousands of haiku -- those 17-syllable, unrhymed Japanese poems -- about Spam:

"Spam volcano blows.

Stratosphere laden with pork.

Gorgeous pink sunsets."

How much more variety do you want?

Still, the Internet is far from omnipotent.

Impotent example: Dinner is nearly cooked, you have seven hungry guests in the living room, and you spill a whole box of salt into the bouillabaisse. Someday, you may be able to get instant expert advice from the Internet on rescuing your dinner. Not yet. There are databases that let you ask questions of professional chefs. But for the most part, you can't count on immediate answers. Many take up to 24 hours.

The Internet today is like a Model A Ford. What you see it do seems miraculous compared to what went before. But you also perceive that it is incredibly primitive compared to what it will become.

Right now, you can get into the Internet for food information in two ways:

You can spend up to $30 for a floppy disk and $10 to $25 in monthly access fees to be linked with the World Wide Web, which includes more than 90 percent of all the information sites on the Internet.

Or you can get a free floppy disk and pay $5 to $10 in monthly access fees (plus extra if you use it more than 10 hours or so a month) to be linked with one of the three main commercial services -- America Online, CompuServe or Prodigy, which provide their own information sites. These often offer easier ways of getting information and slicker, more colorful graphics. Oh, and the three commercial services also will help you link up with the World Wide Web, so you've got everything covered.

, Let's look at each in order.

World Wide Web

Look for information here three ways: 1) "http" addresses (called URLs, for Uniform Resource Locators), 2) tables of contents, and 3) "home pages."

Type in the address http:/www. welcome.html and you will reach an information site put on the Internet by Hershey's Chocolate. You get recipes for black magic cake and cocoa fudge, plus a feature that's popular on many information sites -- "FAQs" or "frequently asked questions" -- in this case, answers to such queries as "How do I melt chocolate?" and "What's the rule on high-altitude baking?"

If you don't have an "http" address, the Web also will let you open a little "search screen" and simply type in the name "Hershey's," and will then give you a list of every information site that prominently mentions that name.

Small awkwardness here: I plugged in "Dole" in search of pineapple recipes and got a list of 88 sites about Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and only 12 about the fruit company. Still, I did get my recipe.

Where do you get the "http" addresses? Newspaper and magazine ads, word of mouth, even labels on spaghetti-sauce jars.

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