Cooking with computer: it helps plan menus, makes the shopping list
San Francisco — LIKE comedian Rodney Dangerfield, Joseph Warner Butler III ''don't get no respect.'' With Mr. Butler, however, the reason is not his personality. It is the fact that he is cofounder of a company, Virtual Combinatics, which produces Micro Cookbook, a program that converts a home computer into a recipe minder and menu planner.
Since the inception of home computers, computerized cookbooks have borne more than their share of ridicule. Critics single them out with remarkable regularity as an example of excessive and absurd gadget-faddishness. Within the industry, purveyors of such arcana as word processors, data-base software, and electronic spreadsheets look down their noses at the humble cookbook.
''Cookbooks have been the laughingstock of the industry,'' Mr. Butler observes with obvious chagrin.
Despite the low esteem in which computer cookbooks are held, Butler and a handful of others have persevered. And Micro Cookbook has been doing surprisingly well. Fifteen thousand copies of the $40 program have been sold so far, making it the first such program to break into the top-10 best-seller lists in the home software category. Just what can a computer cookbook do that might make it worth someone's while? Basically, it allows its user to search, sort, and organize recipes with great speed and flexibility. Micro Cookbook, for example, comes with 155 recipes. Compiled by professional meal planners, these emphasize Midwestern and West Coast recipes, Butler says. It is possible to add your own favorites or purchase diskettes, for $12 to $20 each, with about 120 additional recipes. Currently these cover soups and salads, appetizers, and desserts. The company is buying the rights to more recipes. (Don't expect Craig Claiborne, however. The noted chef has reportedly sworn on his food processor that none of his recipes will grace something as gauche as a computer screen.)
Say you are inviting several people over to dinner and are planning a meal. Ordinarily, you would probably pull out several cookbooks and a box of recipe cards and begin thumbing through them, looking for a combination of dishes and courses that sounds interesting. With Micro Cookbook, you load the program in your computer and begin searching, say, for recipes with chicken. If one of your guests is on a salt-free diet, you can search for chicken without salt. If you want to limit the meal to Italian-style entrees, you can specify this. Or, if the guests are old friends, you may have flagged some of their particular favorites and you can call these up.
Once you've entered your criteria, the computer displays the recipes that meet them. If a recipe turns out to be for the wrong number of people, you simply tell the computer how many are coming, and it automatically rescales all the quantities. (This feature must be used with caution, however. It makes the adjustment by simple proportions, whereas some ingredients, particularly spices, do not scale in this fashion.) You can print out your recipes on paper, and you can get the computer to make up a grocery list for you automatically.
The program also includes calorie and nutrition guides as well as a glossary of cooking terms. In the future, Virtual Combinatics will add a program with more powerful menu-planning capabilities that will enable a cook to lay out a whole month's worth of meals and print out weekly grocery lists, Butler says.
Despite its popularity, some critics question how much such a program is actually used. Robert Lundgren, for instance, bought Micro Cookbook for his wife , but he can't get her to use it. ''The problem is that the computer isn't in the kitchen,'' he says. While Butler admits some of the purchasers are men who don't cook, he says 30 percent of the program's purchasers are women. Sixty percent of those who buy the basic cookbook come back later for additional recipe diskettes.
If he is right, we may soon see the faces of Julia Child and Betty Crocker looking out at us from software boxes.