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Before AI recipes, there was this $90,000 kitchen computer.
It's been half a century and robots still can't clean the kitchen. Plus, a few new cookbooks out this week.
Note: In lieu of a new podcast episode this week, we’re talking AI recipes. I know. This a good week to catch up on our conversations, like last week’s with Pasta Grannies’ Vicky Bennison, or dive into our human-made recipe archive. If you’re looking for this week’s new cookbook releases, find them at the bottom of this post.
A few weeks ago, killing some time before the incredible (but unfairly TikTok-maligned!!!) Shania Twain concert, my wife and I found ourselves with a few child-free hours (thanks Mom!) and stumbled into another nostalgic activity: the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. Admission was half-price—there’s a Groupon—and we thought it’d be a quick, interesting pit stop. Two hours later, the museum was closing and we were begging for more time.
Nearing the end, I came across the Honeywell Kitchen Computer, a 1969 device marketed by Neiman Marcus for their holiday catalog. Behold this svelte, smart, sexy burnt-orange machine:
Featuring the tagline “If she can only cook as well as Honeywell can compute,” the messaging was obviously quite chauvinistic and directed not to the target user (the home-cooking housewife) but rather about her, offering well-to-do men with lots of disposable income a shot at what Wired calls “Neiman Marcus' male-topian fantasy.”
“Her souffles are supreme, her meal planning a challenge? She’s what the Honeywell people had in mind when they devised our Kitchen Computer. She’ll learn to program it with a cross-reference to her favorite recipes by N-M’s own Helen Corbitt. … And if she pales at reckoning her lunch tab, she can program it to balance the family checkbook.”
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Here’s a closer look at the ad from the catalog:
This was, by some accounts, the first real “home consumer computer,” even though none were ever sold and it was more of a PR stunt than anything. (And with a price tag of $10,600—about $87,600 in 2023 dollars—it’s no surprise.)
But 54 years ago, the focus was: how do we harness technology to make the act of meal planning, recipe accessing, and cooking easier?
Now, in 2013, the concept of a “home computer” is so dated, with screens on our wrists or in our hands all day. And still, the age-old challenge of getting dinner on the table—quickly and easily—rings on.
Just look at the recent developments and news around AI and recipes. Over the past few months:
Instacart announced a ChatGPT plugin that will allow users to ask for a recipe following certain criteria (“What can I make with cauliflower and lentils?”) and then have everything you need delivered to your door, stat.
Buzzfeed rolled out an AI-backed recipe generator that really just feels like a 2009 Buzzfeed pop culture quiz.
And the media are all about these AI-generated recipes. The New York Times published an AI-created Thanksgiving menu. An Outside Magazine writer spent a day making AI recipes (“It Was Both Delicious and Freaky”) as did Eater (“Make Your AI Recipe. It Won’t Be Good.”).
So this week, when Apple announced that iOS 17 will be able to “suggest recipes for similar dishes from a photo on your iPhone,” I thought back to that attention-grabbing “Kitchen Computer.” Granted none were ever sold, I am lost on the allure of dropping the modern equivalent of $90k on a computer that didn’t even come with a screen or easy way to read the output and required a two-week coding course to learn how to use it. (At least the price included the course—and, actually, a cute apron! Someone should bring this “multi-pastel” beauty back; paging Molly Baz or Ellen Bennett!)
Wired explains how the Kitchen Computer would have worked:
If the lady of the house wanted to build her family’s dinner around broccoli, she’d have to code in the green veggie as 0001101000. The kitchen computer would then suggest foods to pair with broccoli from its database by "speaking" its recommendations as a series of flashing lights. … "What that means is you have to be able to decode the lights in your brain,” says Spicer of the Computer History Museum. Or at least remember the pattern and look up what it meant. At that rate, dinner might be ready next week.
Imagine asking, “Hey Google, what can I make with this extra head of 0001101000 in the back of my fridge?”
You can’t, because this isn’t 1969, and you have a screen on your wrist and in your hand and in front of you right now and on your desk and on your kitchen counter and in your car and everywhere else you ever are.
And now, soon, you’ll be able to pull out your handheld screen, find or take a picture of a grain bowl or some salad or a stack of pancakes, and be served a stream of possible (but very possibly terrible) recipes, right at your fingertips. Or, Apple hopes, right into your corneas via your AI-vision goggles!
What a world.
How do you feel about AI recipes? Have you tried recipes generated by ChatGPT or other AI programs? Are you relying on any robots to make your meal plans (and, if so, how do I get one)? Let’s hear it in the comments.
A quiet week on the release front:
Ed Mitchell's Barbeque by Ed Mitchell, Ryan Mitchell, and Zella Palmer
Tandoori Home Cooking: Over 70 Classic Indian Tandoori Recipes to Cook at Home by Maunika Gowardhan
Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen by Rebecca May Johnson