Computers or Cookbooks in the Kitchen?

He said: Come into our kitchen and you’ll find cookbooks gracing it. About three dozen of them tucked away on two shelves along one side of the cooking island, their bindings perfectly even (thanks to a ruler I frequently nudge up against them). But they’re cooking eunuchs, nothing more than decoration, as if we were selling the house and wanted to convey subtley to potential buyers the domestic pleasures awaiting them in those pages. The motherlode of books are found far away from the UXBZ (unexploded bomb zone) of the kitchen: In CT, that would be my writing studio, and in NYC, the dining room. Plainly put: No sauces, tomato stains, or grease smudges will ever deface my books.

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So it’s curious that my laptop, which cost me three times my monthly mortgage, is what I bring into the kitchen when I cook.

For me, comprehensiveness trumps logic. I know I should keep the computer miles away from the stove and my preternatural clumsiness. (I won’t even eat near my computer during the day.) But I just can’t stay away from everything the Internet has to offer while cooking. It’s like having my own personal Schlesinger Library’s Culinary Collection in my kitchen.

Whether you like it or not, just about any recipe you want to make from just about any cookbook is online, somewhere. (Me, I like it.) And I like having Leite Brain—what I call my laptop—handy because I rarely cook from just one recipe. I pull from three or four at once, and the last thing I want is piles of books on the counter. Plus I oftentimes cook from this blog but am curious how other sites and blogs whip up, say, gougères or bavette, so I browse. And soon enough, I’m lost in that great, wonderful, frustrating worm hole of cyberspace. Along the way I pick up a few tips from Michael Ruhlman here, a video from Mark Bittman there, and sometimes even a new idea for tomorrow’s dinner.

Then comes the ritual of the printing of the recipes and the taping to the cabinets (something The One hates, because I once pulled off paint when ripping them down after a particularly frustrating dinner). After the kitchen is kitted out, the computer isn’t out of reach—I never know when I might need more info, want to catch up on the latest episode of “Desperate Housewives” while onions sauté, or reply to Momma Leite, who likes to e-mail during the early evening.

What can I say, I have cooking ADD.

Of course, Leite Brain’s being in the line of fire (sometimes literally) has prompted me to jury-rig it for safety. First, I never have it next to the stove, anymore. We won’t go there, but suffice it say that I have a new laptop. I also cover the keyboard and screen with plastic wrap—kind of a giant computer condom, protecting it from all kinds of nasties.

Now, the one place I never hesitate to bring my beloved books is the bedroom. There I luxuriate in their words and pictures and sometimes even fall asleep with a pile at my feet. I don’t know what that says about me or my relationship, but we’re not going there, either.—David Leite

She said: If you could see the state of my cookbooks, you’d understand why I don’t take my laptop into the kitchen.

It’s not that I’m intentionally careless or that my cookbook collection  is mistreated terribly. It’s that I’m simply not the type of cook who can maintain the books in just-off-the-shelf condition. As my husband says, I really get into my cooking. I’m prone to what he describes as Seussian stacks of teetering pots and pans everywhere. And that’s not all. Chopping boards balance over the kitchen sink. All four burners blast aflame. The narrow ledge outside our window doubles as a makeshift cooling rack. Guests have been known to duck and dive, but for me, there’s a rhythm, albeit an occasionally discordant one. In the midst of this juggling act, there just isn’t a lot of time to be prissy about things like splashes and drips and splotches. If there’s a lull in the cooking, fine. Otherwise, it’s just too distracting.

Even when I try, really try, to be careful, I just can’t seem to pull it off. Just ask David. The last time—and I do mean the last time—he loaned me a cookbook, I set it safely outside the kitchen. One stray, damp thumbprint was all it took to give my habits away.¹

I wouldn’t dare take my electronics into that fray. Nor would I want to, practicality aside. You know how they say to use your bedroom only for sleep and, um, other bed-centric pursuits? I feel the same about my kitchen. I don’t want to read emails that other people feel are urgent while my eggs perfectly sunnyside up—soft, please—slip tragically into mediocrity. And I don’t want to interrupt everything to tweet 137 self-deprecating characters about the incident. Laptop as resource? Without a doubt. But not when I’m in the throes of cooking. I already did my homework, sussing out an ingredient substitution or summoning  a technique online before I decide to stand facing the stove. If something comes up, I’ll deal with it on my own. When I’m in the kitchen, it’s time to cook. Anything else just messes up my mojo.

So the closest my delicate, Meyer-lemon-averse Mac gets to the mess—and I to its distracting charms—is the wee wooden schoolhouse chair in the foyer, just outside our galley kitchen. With my laptop’s volume cranked, I can ponder deep thoughts from “All Things Considered” or croon off-key to Ella while otherwise considering things cooking-related.

 

As far as I’m concerned, perhaps the best use of technology in the kitchen is to photocopy a recipe in order to keep a book out of harm’s way. Yet I’m a sucker for the sentient pleasures related to cooking from a book, which explains why my cookbooks are a mess in the first place. I need the soothing white space around the edge of the page in order to dance a duet with the ingredients in my imagination. I spend those idle moments waiting for a stock to burble lost in the lyrical headnotes of Judy Rodgers. And I learn every time my husband leans over my shoulder to eye an open cookbook to make pithy comments about the writing style, urge me to take more liberties with the ingredients, or muse over recipes that may be more to his liking.

They’re not just cookbooks. They’re scrapbooks of sorts. Telltale translucent stains from melted butter both grease and grace my mom’s binder of go-to recipes. I continue her legacy with a blemish here (a smear of cilantro that escaped my maiden molcajete run with a Peppercorn-Coriander Root Flavor Paste) and a batter-splattered page there (the incomparable Laurie Colwin channeling Katherine Hepburn’s brownies in a decades-old issue of Gourmet). Though the perfectionist in me sometimes cringes, I don’t mind the splotches that shout out those memories, moments that probably wouldn’t exist had the recipes blinkered onscreen. I don’t mind them at all.—Renee Schettler

¹Okay, let’s be real. A single watery fingerprint would be fine. But I could tell which recipe she tested by looking at the side of the book. The page was so wavy, it looked like an EKG readout.—David

Tell us: Do you bring your computer or cookbooks into the kitchen? And why?

Comments
Comments
  1. domenica says:

    Gotta say I’m (mostly) with Renee on this one. I love having the physical presence of the cookbook right there on the kitchen counter with me. The stains and the wear and tear don’t bother me (with a couple of exceptions). I even write notes on the recipe pages. That said, I have to confess that since getting a laptop a couple of months ago I’ve been unable to keep it from inching its way, day by day, toward the kitchen from my office. I now keep it on my kitchen table, which is just far enough away from the counter to keep it away from any potential mishaps but, alas, not far enough away to keep me away from its distractions.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      It’s quite a little dance between stovetop and laptop, isn’t it? I know its lure quite well. At the beginning, I resorted to keeping a towel draped across my shoulder for the sole purpose of wiping my fingertips, just in case…

  2. The only laptop in our house is owned by my work, so I dont’ dare take that into the kitchen :-)

    I do take cookbooks into the kitchen with me. I can tell how much I’ve used it by how dirty it is. Hee hee.

  3. Leanne says:

    I use both – I have my collection of “classic” cookbooks that I turn to when I want something simple that I know will work (pancakes, pound cake, roast chicken, braised pork). I usually keep them open at the other end of the island, so the worst they see is a sprinkling of flour or salt.

    On the other hand, as I’m browsing the internet, I usually e-mail links to recipes I want to try to a separate account or I’ll favorite them in my Google reader. Then I can fire up the laptop and just pull up the e-mail or Reader and find what I’m looking for. Of course, the laptop is also handy for pulling up LC testing recipes so I don’t always have to print them out!

  4. CherylK says:

    I’m with Renee, too, for the most part although I’m constantly searching the web for info or variations on a recipe, etc.

    I love reading cookbooks like other people read novels…and I have little sticky notes stuck on pages and jot notes in the margins. That’s critical especially if a recipe turns out terrible! My computer is in a little office a few steps from the kitchen so it’s handy, which is a good thing.

  5. Beth Price, LC Recipe Testing Director says:

    I admit it…I am a techno-geek-android. I am forever on the internet searching and reading and printing off reams of recipes- probably because I have a limited supply of ten cookbooks. That may change though, my wonderful mentor cleaned out her bookshelves today and added 20 new books to my collection, so I may turn over a new leaf….

  6. Bob Geitz says:

    I take BOTH cookbooks and computer into the kitchen. The cookbooks live there—I can’t plan a meal without them. I try to be careful about spills, but sure, they’re stained. Those are marks of use, little red badges of honor. The laptop is another matter. A few years ago I bought some recipe software (I bought Living Cookbook and it works fine for my needs; I haven’t tried the others) and embarked on a project of going through my 25 years of Gourmet and typing up recipes that I thought I might use. This is the second-best thing I’ve ever done for my cooking (the best was to buy several of Julia Child’s books when I was a graduate student trying to learn how to cook. All hail Julia.) I now have a database of more than 600 recipes that my family might conceivably eat. More importantly, all that typing taught me huge amounts about cooking—essential directions, what goes with what, and so forth. It was like taking cooking classes from a hundred masters, but I could do the homework without leaving my computer (and at 2 a.m. when I couldn’t sleep). So the laptop also lives in my kitchen. But I don’t take liquids anywhere near it…

    • David Leite says:

      I like the balance you strike. And, wow! Six hundred recipes? That’s amazing. I don’t have the attention span to do that. Congratulations. Do you ever surf the Web for recipe ideas?

      • Bob Geitz says:

        Sure I surf for recipes. Doesn’t everyone? The trouble is that the quality varies so much. That is where Gourmet used to come in—I thought the content was much more consistent than other cooking magazines, and certainly more so than most of what is on the Net. And, of course, it had tradition going for it. I could design a special circle of hell just for the bean counters at Conde Nast….. Come to think of it, Leite’s Culinaria is probably the most reliable trove of new recipes that we have. Don’t go away, David.

        • David Leite says:

          Bob, we’re not going anywhere, I promise. And I hope that Ruth Reichl is reading this: she and everyone who worked at Gourmet need to hear each and every love note from their devoted readers. Have you checked out Thank You, Gourmet by our own Renee Schettler Rossi?

  7. artoeat says:

    Since we bought “toshi” last year, he has lived in the kitchen. I have taken him over to my prep area and also did the Saran-condom thing but found that cracking a book was much more satisfying, even if I had to trudge down to my office to gather a bouquet of ideas. i look at the drips and dribbles as medals of honor to a good recipe.

  8. Joan says:

    I do take my cookbooks in the kitchen and write notes in them while cooking. I also read my cookbooks like a novel and love curling up with a good one. I don’t have a laptop but even if I did, don’t think I’d take it in the kitchen. I do often surf for recipes in our computer room though.

  9. Sue Epstein says:

    I don’t have a laptop but I definitely use my computer for recipes. If I’m looking for a specific recipe or ingredient, I’ll Google it and then print out the recipe. The only problem with this is that I have stacks and stacks – and stacks of printed out recipes.

    That said, there is nothing like a cookbook in the kitchen. I have my favorite go-to books on a shelf in the kitchen and always have stacks of them on the counters or a chair in the kitchen. I manage to keep my books fairly clean but I agree, that the stains are memories. I also write in my cookbooks. I note changes I made or should make in the future, whether I liked it or not, how it was received by others, and possibly who I served it to and the occasion. Thus my books are often scrapbooks of memories.

    In one of the cookbooks that I wrote, a blank column was left on each page for the cook to jot their notes. I wish more cookbooks were printed like this.

  10. Doris says:

    I have a Mac laptop and a program called YummySoup on it. It works just like iTunes. I have about 600 recipes on it. You can type in your recipes (from books) or drag them into its window from the Internet, and they’re in. They can be classified however you want them. I even have a folder called “Best of the Best.”

    During the week, I go through the internet blogs, newspapers, books, etc. and read multiple recipes about the same dish, then I select one (or a couple) that I think work the best and make sure they go into my YummySoup.

    On Sundays, I cook the whole day with my laptop by my side (but away from water and fire, on a kitchen island). YummySoup allows you to put your recipe on a black background with big black letters that I can read from the distance. Of course, before that, I’ve created a menu (like an iTunes playlist) with all the recipes I want to cook that day and I’ve gotten a shopping list from the program. I make about 6 different dishes and separate into glass containers to take all my meals to work. I have a lot of cookbooks, but those are for reading and studying and they’re spotless clean, and away from the kitchen.

    • David Leite says:

      Doris, I want to marry you. We think so much alike. So ditch the husband and let’s get hitched.

    • Joanne says:

      Thanks for turning me on to Yummy Soup!! For years I looked for a recipe-organizing program that is intuitive and easy to navigate and simply gave up. I’ve got scads of archived MasterCook files that will never see use again—egads, all that typing gone to waste. Oh well, just downloaded and am playing with Yummy Soup when I should be doing other things…fun!

  11. Dan Kraan, LC Community Moderator says:

    I used to bring my cookbooks into the kitchen. The ones with, or if I’m lucky, without food stains, small grease splotches and other “mementos,” all have an honoured place in my library. I used to tape printouts of recipes to the cupboards, but I wanted to be a bit more environmentally responsible. In lieu of printing, I would dash back and forth from the computer room to see what was on the screen or scribble short form notes illegibly on a “Post-It” and stick it to the cupboard. This still resulted in the odd cross reference dash—back to the computer room for clarification.

    I can’t say the odd book doesn’t end up in the kitchen, but a few weeks ago I introduced my laptop to my microwave, and they have been living inseparably ever since. The laptop sits high enough now, off the counter to avoid the odd spill, yet convenient enough to avoid repeated trips to the computer room. My cookbooks are used chiefly as reference manuals; they give me an idea of what I would like to do. In addition to providing additional inspiration, my laptop is in the kitchen for times when a recipe must be followed exactly—without the extra paperwork.

    • David Leite says:

      Okay, first OUCH about the environmentally friendly approach of not taping recipes to the cabinet. Have to mull that one over. And I love the affair your computer is having with your microwave. You know what comes next, don’t you, once they’ve mated: Computers that make dinner for you.

  12. Kara Newman says:

    Great article, great debate! And my two cents: neither cookbook nor computer. Instead, my cooking media of choice is the magazine. I go thru dozens of them, and read each no fewer than 3 times: first to skim; second to read & enjoy; third time to dog-ear and destroy. I rip out all the recipes I want to try and magnet them to the refrigerator, which has become something of a cooking collage. (it’s both striking and alarming the first time you see it!) I build my shopping list off of those articles. I learn new techniques and absorb trends through them. I throw out the recipe duds, and file away the winners to make again another time.

    The cookbooks stay intact. My laptop stays out of the kitchen. I use both as cooking resources, but the magazines really endure the hardest & harshest use. I dread the day all magazines go digital.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      Kara, you went straight to where I was scared to share. Suffice it to say, we could swap crinkled, blotched, ripped and otherwise mangled war stories without the appalling disdain of David and others. So I’m with you on the fervent prayer that glossies remain intact. But tell me, do you really never cook from cookbooks?

      • David Leite says:

        Pish tosh! Disdain?! I think not. A slightly displeased sideways glance over the glasses. But never disdain.

      • Kara Newman says:

        LOL! Oh, I definitely cook from cookbooks. But Renee, like you I’m very hard on them, and they never stay propped open exactly on the right page, so I kill the book spine as well as splatter the pages. I feel like there’s a higher premium on recipes from books—I paid X amount for it, and I want all the recipes to be home runs.

        I feel like magazines are naturally ephemeral—they eventually wind up in the recycling bin anyway, so I don’t have the same twinge about ripping ‘em to shreds. And I don’t feel like such a chump if I don’t love the final results.

        David, I’ll get that photo to you. You’re going to laugh at me. It’s such a ridiculous mess in an otherwise fastidious kitchen!

        • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

          Completely understand what you’re saying about magazines, although I still feel betrayed every time a recipe isn’t memorable…

          And yes, cookbooks are inherently disappointing in that one respect, aren’t they? Even some of the best ones. I think there are perhaps two in my collection that I don’t begrudge a mediocre result from long ago, despite all the epiphanies since. II don’t calculate it as a one-to-one ratio, the successes versus the failures…

    • David Leite says:

      I guess we needed a He Says, She Says, and She Says. Your approach is interesting. What do you do when you want to cook from a cookbook? Also, Kara you HAVE to send us a picture of your fridge. I’ll post it here.

  13. Joanne says:

    1. For certain cookbook authors, it’s pretty easy to find recipes online. But outside of FoodTV/cookbook celebrities and the cadre of Masters (Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, James Beard, etc…) it can be pretty tough to find them. Unless they are on your site, of course!

    2. I don’t want to give up the counter space for a laptop AND the no-fly zone around it to ensure it doesn’t get slopped. Yes, my cookbooks are pretty slopped. However, *I* get to do the slopping. I’d be irritated if someone else did it. Double standard? Yes. But they’re MINE. (I have a 2-yearold.)

    3. We didn’t have a printer for a while, so I was forced to bring my laptop in the kitchen, and it was pretty stressful. In addition to keeping airborne ingredients from resting on the keyboard, the screen saver/power saver kept kicking, in and I would have to wake it up with goop-covered fingers or run over and hit a key now and then with my elbow. I just don’t need that in the final stages of caramel (what temperature was that again?) or folding things into a delicate sponge batter (what goes in next?). And, yes, I know, turn off the power saver. Who remembers to do that?

  14. nakedbeet says:

    Is there a him + her button? I have a permanent cookbook holder for the pages I print off the web and for the cookbooks I’ll have open at the same time. I’ll have several different recipes and ideas going in the same week. I care about getting my books dirty, so I’ll place a spoon as a bookmarker to flip to the page again if I don’t want to crease the spine of a book I have to try but will be giving away. I’m looking forward to getting the Ipad so I can have a nice full size screen for looking at blog recipes (the husband doesn’t like me getting his laptop dirty.) I love making notes and so printed pages off the web will get trashed if they failed or jotted down in my cookbook journal if they’re keepers or will be tweaked.

    Also, slight tangent, but there’s a great application on the web now that will allow you to archive your library (for those of us with tons of books) and look up recipes by title, ingredient list, etc… and search your own collection of books. It’s brilliant: EatYourBooks.com

  15. lori says:

    This was an interesting read. I bring both my laptop and cookbook into the kitchen. Laptop stays on the dining table which is near enough so that I can quickly check out kitchen terms/cooking methods I might need to look up. Cookbook gets propped up on my wooden bookstand, and it’s what I cook from. I used to keep my cookbooks pristine, but I venture to write the date certain recipes were cooked on and, of course, smudges make their way onto the pages.

  16. Gael says:

    I use my cookbooks and computer constantly for recipes. That being said NEITHER will enter my kitchen. Am I allowed to bring in my textbook to an calculus exam? I feel the same way about cookbooks. At most, I’ll print something out and hold it on my fridge with a magnet. My technique is usually to study the recipe over and over until I have an idea on what I should do. Sometimes when I’m lost I’ll have the book or computer open in the living room, and I’ll trek back and forth. If I had to have any electronics at all in the kitchen, then I would probably use the Nintendo DS Personal Trainer Cooking. It has a microphone and a touch screen. The software recognizes your voice and goes on to the next step simply by telling it to. No need to clean your hands all the time.

  17. Joseph says:

    I’m with David on this one. I have tons of cookbooks relegated to my office, but they’re merely there to put on a show. I look through them and read them now and then, but when I find a recipe I want to cook I try to then find it online and print it out. I also browse the blogosphere and try to find different versions of recipes and take bits and pieces of what I like from each to create a Frankenstein combination. After the cooking is complete, I merely toss the stained pieces of paper. But I never take my laptop to the kitchen–I just run back and forth between the kitchen and my office hoping my garlic won’t burn. I would never lend a book for fear it might get stained by splashes of food or a fingerprint. I too hate those waves that appear on the sides of books after reading them. And I literally shudder when a friend reaches for a book from my shelves and starts leafing through using their forefinger–it leaves a dent on each page! I would never admit to this elsewhere but here: I have been known to read my very expensive /Big Fat Duck/ cookbook using white cotton conservation gloves so as not to transfer the oils from my hands onto the page. I admit I’m obsessive and compulsive about my cookbooks.

  18. Martha in KS says:

    I have over a hundred cookbooks & when I cooked for a living could grab the correct one whenever I needed a recipe (that was before I got old & lost my memory). They’ve been banished to the sunroom. and now I exclusively use the computer for recipe searching & storage—my recipe software is priceless. Occasionally, I’ll set the laptop on the kitchen island, but more often I jot down the ingredients on a scrap of paper (I admit to being a hopeless recycler) and cook from that. An accidental spillage would be heartbreaking.

  19. Carol Hargis says:

    A couple hundred cookbooks are shelved at the bottom of my basement stairs. At the top of those stairs is a custom cabinet which holds about 25. Every 6 months or so I swap them out, just like we used to do with our daughters millions of stuffed animals. It keeps things fresh and interesting. But the bulk of the recipes are in a database on my primary PC. They come from the web and from the cookbooks. I do my research well in advance at that computer. When I’ve at last gleefully chosen the menu, I print out the recipe(s). This goes to the kitchen to start my shopping list, which I write in white margin. Whatever is on hand or in the pantry stays off the list. The printout accompanies me to the grocery store(s) and back home. More than once has the fish monger strained to see what I was making for dinner. Then the page sits (yes, David, sometimes taped to the cabinet on the right of the stove) on the counter to be put to use. Before I throw it out and sit down to dine, I always appreciate the splatters, drips & spoon-rest stains that punctuate the page. So in my kitchen the cookbook and the computer are on the same page.

  20. Good God, I hope neither of you see my cookbook library (pages curls up with sticky paw prints) or my computer, which at this very moment requires multiple stabbings of the “a” key because I feel sure a rutabaga is caught underneath, as well as the fact that for some odd reason the ‘e’ and the ‘n’ keys are smudged almost beyond recognition. And the whole computer smells slightly like soy sauce.

    But nicely done, both of you! I am a cooking slob either way.

  21. Christyn Johnson says:

    Like many others, I’m a mix of both. I have a collection of cookbooks that I draw from all the time, they are dragged in and out of the kitchen as needed. I write in the books (horror!!!), marking the items my family loved/hated, substitutions I made and who I made it for. My favorite of these gets typed into my cooking software and rated. I can make notes/comments as well, so I have the information I need in both spots.

    The recipes that I find online I import into my cooking software and leave unrated so I know I haven’t made them yet. My laptop has a place of honor (and safety) in my kitchen, on top of the elevated dishwasher—it’s not at counter height, so it is not used for food prep, and nothing can be spilled on it, it is closer to bar height so it makes it easier to read without scrolling etc. I love it!

    • David Leite says:

      Christyn, it seems os if you have the very best of both world. I envy you your the elevated dishwasher. Perfect for glancing without bending over…

  22. Helene says:

    I know this is an older post but I would be curious to see how many are using iPads in the kitchen in 2013. I use it a lot and ‘clip’ my recipes into Evernote. No more paint chipping on the walls :) I still use my cookbooks for reference and also research vintage, especially Québec, to see how my grand mothers were cooking. Interesting to find hand written notes from my grand mothers and aunts and those vintage cookbooks. There is such a story behind those old cookbooks and I would be hard for me to just use iPads or computer. But I have to admit that doing dishes is more interesting watching Ricardo Larivée (a Québec cooking show) on my iPad than looking at my backyard.

    • David Leite says:

      Helene, that’s a great question, and I toss it out to our readers. So tell us: how many of you use iPads when it comes to the kitchen? Personally, I have my iPad and iPhone with me all the time when cooking. Occasionally I’ll print out a recipe if I know that I want to make changes.

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