Virtual Vittles

Virtual Vittles

Janet Orsi

Eat your words: From alligator stew to zucchini boats, the Internet is an index to the kitchen.

Using the Web to find that perfect recipe

By David Templeton

THE PARTY INVITATION arrived unsurreptitiously in the morning mail, along with a stack of coupons and grocery ads and a promotional disc for yet another Internet software service. “Pirate’s Picnic,” the invite proclaimed. “Year of the Gator.” Cool. A piratical potluck, to be held on Angel’s Island. Guests requested to bring significantly themed edibles. The hosts would be cooking up a big batch of Alligator Jambalaya. Real alligator. Flown in from some weird meat supply service in Boston. “Them that dines will be the Lucky Ones,” it concluded.

I swiftly phoned in my R.S.V.P. and began to plan the menu. What could I bring to picnic that would blend thematically with Alligator Stew? A speedy flip through the pages of my vast cookbook library revealed nothing with the appropriate 18th-century theatricality.Suddenly I remembered that promotional computer disc. Didn’t the envelope scream the phrase “Online Recipes,” along with a list of other enticements? “Well, blow me down!” I said optimistically. “I’ll simply employ the greatest technological marvel of the 20th century, the Internet, to hunt me up and download me some palatable chow. It’ll be easy.”

But that was last week, and I was young and foolish then.

Online sites devoted to matters of food, it turns out, are far more abundant than I had expected. In fact, there is so much grub-related information available to those with the proper equipment, it rather spins the head.

There is a Virtual Kitchen, a Virtual Vineyard, and even a Virtual Lunch counter. Chat groups devoted to the authentic preparation of sushi are humming along with those offering tips for venders at Native American powwows, and hot-plate recipes for dormitory-bound college students. Slick interactive magazines devote themselves to California cuisine, ancient Egyptian cooking, freshwater trout, and you-name-it. You can order wine, order cookbooks, and order a pizza, then download the menu of a restaurant across the county or across the world. A random search is great entertainment, but searching for something specific can be daunting. If you have the time and the energy, however, there is little related to cooking and food that you won’t find. But be warned: There is plenty of junk food on the shelves of the virtual grocery store.

“Without putting the Internet down,” says Lawrence Sterling, of Iron Horse Ranch and Vineyard in Sebastopol, “two years ago you could go onto Yahoo and other browser services and put in the word ‘wine,’ and not that much would show up. Do it now and it goes on forever. And a lot of it makes you wonder if the people who put it there have a life.”

Two years ago, Iron Horse, with Sterling as enthusiastic cheerleader, joined forces with Peter Granhoff, the San Francisco webmaster behind the Virtual Vineyard , an online warehouse devoted to fine California wines. Net-surfing wine buyers can visit the Virtual Vineyard to ask about local wineries, find out which wine would taste best alongside a fillet of salmon, read reviews of wines from various wineries, and then hook up with specific wineries to get more information and even place orders.

Since it began selling wine over the Internet, Iron Horse has enjoyed a steady, if not spectacular, flurry of online business. “We’re quite content with it,” Sterling judiciously suggests. “It hasn’t replaced the neighborhood store. I don’t think it ever will. But we like it.”

Sterling’s sister, Joy, has also found the Web a useful place for members of the food industry. She contributes a monthly wine column to website. While the Virtual Vineyard is basically a store, the Kitchen is a full-fledged interactive magazine, offering a whole spate of informed columnists, along with beautiful graphics, recipe exchange forums, and a generous sprinkling of culinary humor.

In the Virtual Kitchen I discovered the “Dish Message Board.” Distracted by the message “Wanted: Easy Recipes for College,” I opened that link, where there were recipes for “Crockpot Meat Loaf,” “Easy Beefy-Roni,” and something called “Cheesy Chicken” that apparently involves Velveeta.

Fans of insects will be either delighted or appalled to learn of Iowa State University’s Tasty Insect Recipes page. How about some Bug Blox (Jell-O mixed with dry-roasted leafhoppers) or Rootworm Beetle Dip? Though I will always savor the thought of arriving at a party with a platter of Banana Worm Bread, I continued my search.

The surprises continued. I found a website full of Buddhist recipes; when I attempted to link on, I was repeatedly treated to a blank screen. Sensing a bit of Zen humor, I moved on to The Vegetarian, a magazine put online by the Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom, featuring, among other things, Linda McCartney’s recipe for “Chili Non Carne” and John Cleese’s instructions for opening a box of corn flakes, with the odd final note: “Use Coca-Cola instead of milk. Add basil as required.”

Hours later, I discovered the Traditional Native American Recipe Page , with hundreds of entries describing everything from authentic posole and Indian Tacos to barbecued corn. Corn!

Detailed instructions on harvesting, husking, and barbecuing one to two truckloads of fresh corn, enough for a thousand hungry powwowians. I could cut the volume down to two dozen ears or so.

Finally, I’d hit pay dirt.

SURROUNDED BY the steamy aroma of simmering alligator flesh, I stood at the grill, turning my painstakingly prepared corn over the fire, the printed recipe folded in my back pocket. “Where’d you get the idea for this?’ someone asked. “I found it on the Internet,” I proudly confessed. “There’s a lot of interesting food info on the Web.”

“The Web, huh?” my friend smiled, sniffing at the roasting husks. “You should have called me and saved yourself the trouble. My grandmother’s been cooking corn like this for years.”

“That may be true,” I thought to myself, wondering why I didn’t just go to a bookstore instead of spending six hours in front of the computer. Then I thought of something that made me feel infinitely better. “Maybe so,” I replied, “but I bet your grandmother doesn’t know how to make Bug Blox!”

Ah, Brave New World that has such features in it!

From the August 1-7, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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© 1996 Metro Publishing and Virtual Valley, Inc.

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