A combination of a bit too much spare time, an eagerness to please, and free calls to local numbers inside the US meant that recipes were one of the first types of content to flood the early web en masse. Thanks to pioneering work by lonely American housewives, there are now more than three million hits on a Google search for meatloaf. Pot roast trails behind with around two million (with just over 5,000 for “How do I get my neighbour to return my Tupperware?”).
Nigel Mackenzie, proprietor of The Hungry Monk restaurant in Sussex, is famed for his invention of the banoffee pie, as well as his regret that he never patented it. But recipes are more often viewed as folk knowledge, information goods that are passed freely between one another. It follows that this makes it OK for celebrity chefs to republish one another's recipes in their own cookbooks. Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater are prime culprits here, but they're far from the only ones. At least Sid Vicious paid Paul Anka a royalty when he covered "My Way".
Their "free good" nature also makes recipes perfect for the web. A bouquet of recipe blogs have caught my attention recently, most notably From Page to Plate (frompagetoplate. blogspot.com), and Kitchen Delights (kitchen-delights.blogspot.com). Their authors are all devoted followers of the recipes found in the cookbooks of celebrity chefs, and unlike the recipe swap sites of Nineties American homemakers, the results now come with full colour photo documentation. This is reality cooking - there are no "food stylists" here. For a fellow amateur, it can be gratifying to know you're not the only one whose Chianti baked meatballs come out on the grey side, or whose breakfast muffins never rise quite as high as Jo Pratt's. But I'm not sure what Nigella and Co make of it all.
Of course, unless your laptop has a built-in splashback, it's a good idea to print off the recipe you plan to use before you begin cooking from the web. Since last year, my 50-pocket A4 plastic display file has been filling up with printouts. (I recommend the Vegetarian Society site (vegsoc.org) and the BBC (bbc.co.uk/food/ recipes). Thanks mainly to the fact that it publishes the recipes from Ready, Steady, Cook, the latter has 53 different takes on tomato soup.
What next? Perhaps instead of a refreshing mint after your meal, restaurants could offer to sync your iPod with information on how to cook what you just ate. Or maybe someone will write software that works exactly like Heston Blumenthal. (Actually, I know a couple of guys who are working on this right now, but it's top secret.)
In the meantime, the Canadian poet Maureen Evans is pushing recipe dissemination to the hinterlands of new media. She uses Twitter - the micro blog that only lets you post updates of 140 characters or under - to share her cooking skills. Here's the latest update from her Twitter feed at twitter.com/cookbook. In the spirit of the recipe as free good, I hope she won't mind me posting it in full:
"Celeriac gratin: slice/fry 4celeriac/2T buttr; +7T h2o/cvr~9m. Saute2c tom/onion/ s+p30m. Cook5T buttr&flour/2c milk9m. Lyr4x; 20m@200C/400F."
If you manage to make it, do send the NS a picture. And don't worry what it looks like.
So Virgin had to pull the launch of its legal music-sharing plan, Virgin Music Unlimited, after reportedly investing an eight-figure sum in the potential service. Its aim had been to secure a breakthrough licensing deal, cut across all four major record labels, to bring paid-for peer-to-peer to the bedrooms of the UK’s teenagers, and relief to their worrying parents downstairs. It would have been the first such deal outside of South Korea.
Why did Virgin pull out? Online tech journal the Register reports that there is "big label pressure" to impose unworkable restrictions on the downloaded tracks. This is not surprising. For the past ten years, the record industry has been trying by any means it can to continue selling music on bits of plastic. No matter that an estimated six million UK internet users choose to break the law instead. The labels would rather criminalise them than cater to them.
Coincidentally, but then again perhaps not, two days later the government delayed announcing its decision on new laws to target illicit filesharing over the net. The proposals, due out with Stephen Carter's Digital Britain report, had been scheduled to hit the headlines on 26 January. But on the day, the BBC reported there would be delays, and the intellectual property minister David Lammy started dropping some big hints that forcing filesharers off the net was now very much off the cards. In fact it always had been, but no doubt the timing was intended to rile the errant record execs.
It's always dangerous when the government starts sticking its nose in business deals. It now appears that the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the world's four major record labels are stuck in a game of brinkmanship. With Lord Mandelson at the helm in Victoria Street, it will be interesting to see who blinks first.