Online networking caters to cooks, critics

Feedback on dishes can be quick on Web sites that link food lovers to recipes, tips and each other

October 04, 2006|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN REPORTER

Move over, Food Network. Two new Web sites hope you'll think food networking instead.

Chow.com, a new forum with food articles, message boards and a blog that encourages conversation about cooking and dining out, is the online version of a folded magazine of the same name.

Bakespace.com, which calls itself "a place for cookers and cakers," is the brainchild of Babette Pepaj, a 33-year-old producer of reality television shows in Los Angeles who has a passion for cupcakes. It's modeled after the wildly popular My Space.com, with profiles and pictures of members who swap recipes and kitchen tips. If people like your page or recipes, they'll send "brownie points."

Both sites serve equal parts food and attitude in a virtual world where feedback on a favorite dish can be instant.

Bakespace has signed up about 3,000 members in its first month - more than Pepaj expected, but a tiny fraction of the 114 million people who share music, make dates and hang out at MySpace. Pepaj says her site is growing, though, by 100 to 200 users a day.

She was surprised to find that many of her first members were newlyweds from the Midwest, eager to share their family favorites while expanding the culinary repertoire for a newly domesticated life.

But the Bakespace ranks are varied, she says, with members ranging in age from 15 to 80.

"I've been receiving e-mails and brownie points from people saying this site has really changed the way that we cook," Pepaj says.

A quick surf through the site reveals members such as a goth-looking Gen Y-er named Nicole, who shares her recipe for "mean cereal": "First you take a mean bowl (it's very important that the bowl is mean, or else it's just a bowl of cereal). Then you take a cereal box that has an ugly monster on the front of it (monsters are mean)."

And there's Scott, 37 ("here for the cocktails"), whose recipes include a morning-after tonic called "The Cure," made with V-8, soda water, sugar, salt, bitters and a couple of croutons. And a woman who calls herself "Ali Cat" and concludes each recipe for a delectable-sounding dessert with an equally mouthwatering photo of it.

Everybody seems to have an opinion about food, so the feedback for a recipe online can be brutal. When Chow.com ran a feature on easy lunches to bring from home that would resemble your favorite takeout, its "Mediterranean-ish" recipe for Lentil Salad With Goat Cheese Crostini came in for less than rave reviews. "This recipe is flawed - let me count the ways," wrote one reader; another was "struck by the boring-ness of it."

Ouch, says Jane Goldman, Chow.com's editor in chief. "I'm not surprised, but sometimes I'm wounded. It's a rough crowd out there. ... But if they don't like [something], we have this really good brownie recipe."

But members also have praised the site, which is produced by CNET Networks. ("Yummy!" gushed a reader about those brownies.) Members add to the content, too. To Chow.com's feature on "10 things to do with stale bread," a reader contributed an 11th: "Skordalia!"

While the food is generally on trend, much of the information Chow.com offers is downright basic. Witness the site's somewhat tongue-in-cheek black-and-white video on how to seat your dinner guests, featuring lively little circles as the guests. (Hint: Separate couples! Make the seating boy-girl-boy-girl!)

Goldman says there's a method to the seemingly mixed message - a target audience of young people who as a group haven't logged much time in the kitchen. "They're very sophisticated eaters, but they might be primitive cooks," she says. Chow.com declined to give usage figures.

For those who want something a little more challenging, there's a feature called "Project," with a more complicated culinary adventure - such as making homemade versions of Hostess-style snack cakes.

For those who don't particularly want to learn to cook, there is Chow.com's companion site, chowhound.com, a message board where diners offer restaurant reviews by region.

kate.shatzkin@baltsun.com

Acorn Squash with Red Onion and Currants

Serves 8

2 medium acorn squash

1/4 cup vegetable oil

salt and freshly ground pepper

4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter

5 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons sherry vinegar

2 medium red onions, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon paprika

2 pinches cayenne pepper

1/2 cup dried currants

1/3 cup honey

3 tablespoons red-wine vinegar

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