The NY Times Magazine devoted its whole issue to food yesterday (October 11, 2009), in which Mark Bittman does a superb job ("Faster Slow Food") of explaining how IT can transform the online food shopping experience into something truly intelligent.
First he takes apart the obsession with high-end equipment and gadgets. What do we really need for cooking? A fridge and a stove. Not a $20,000 stove either. Oh, hot water too. Other than that, we really don't need any of the rest to make good (slow) food. Sorry, microwave cookers. He finds the must-have appliance irrelevant except for reheating leftovers and making popcorn, which, remarkably, we were able to do for quite a long time before it became the "it." Dishwashers are nice, he says, (no kidding), as are slow cookers (yes! I've been learning their benefits of late), pressure cookers (never have liked them), and food processors (reminder to self: replace--you've waited so long to reorder the mixing bowl that the model is no longer made). But none of these is indispensable.
Just try cooking on a boat and you'll soon learn how little you need to make good food. My father-in-law, who achieved the (un)record(ed) for slowest circumnavigation of the globe in a 31.5-foot sailboat--12 years--built his own refrigerator from an air conditioner compressor and cooked on a two-burner propane-gas fired gimble stove (it rocks with the waves). Granted, he was hardly a cook (potatoes and rice might be dinner and I'm not saying this for effect) but I cooked on the boat and did just fine.
Back to Bitt. His ultimate point in this article is how smart online food shopping really can be. IT could, and apparently in some places already is able to, remember what you like (I always want avocados, and, sadly, they're never going to be local in Boston), issue alerts when items you want are available (seasonable vegetables--I do love broccoli), in his words:
You could also immortalize your preferences (“Never show me anything whose carbon footprint is bigger than that of my car”; “Show me no animals raised in cages”; “Don’t show me vegetables grown more than a thousand miles from my home”), along with any and all of your cooking quirks (“When I buy chicken, ask me if I want rosemary”). You would receive, if you wanted, an e-mail message when shipments of your favorite foods arrived at the store or went on sale; you could get recipe ideas, serving suggestions, shopping lists, nutritional information and cooking videos. If poor-quality food arrived — yellowing broccoli, stinky fish, whatever — you would receive store credit without any hassle. You might even, I suppose, be able to ask the store to limit the amount of impulse purchases that you make — forget that second pint of Ben & Jerry’s or those Cheez-Its you have trouble resisting.
So now for a bit of first-hand experience: since I've been spending so much time in NYC, where it's not that easy to shop for quantities unless you have a micro-portable U-Haul that is not a real vehicle (let me know when you find one), I've used Fresh Direct, which remembers your lists, allows you to shop for certain categories (organic, etc), tells you what's fresh now (apples, duh), and links to recipes. Works pretty well, though we did receive one rotten half turkey. For the next shopping, I repeated the menus I'd just cooked (they were well received) and thus repeated the memorized order, eliminating a few things that we didn't need. Food arrived smack dab in the two-hour time frame indicated, packed well in appropriate boxes, fridge things here, non-perishables there, and with the help of two-year-old Ben, was able to shelve everything pretty quickly (though a fair number of M&Ms were consumed as bribes, I mean treats, along the way).
My experience aside, IT innovators should listen to Bittman. Never mind that he has great restaurant recommendations, which is how I first became a fan, after following his advice to eat at Vijay's in Vancouver. So much to like about Bittman. Need I mention that he blogs?