Download in the aisles

Use a cell phone to search for recipes while you're at the store? It doesn't click for everyone.

January 16, 2008|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun reporter

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, 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. 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, 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" (

"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 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 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.

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