Design Fiction: Vera & Fred

This design fiction stars Vera and Fred from my character study exercise.

Friday, 6:30 PM

Vera drops her bag on the couch. Another long day at work.

She simultaneously opens her fridge and her kitchen laptop in one practiced motion. Time to crawl the recipe sites for the next great adventure in dinner for one. As she expertly switches her gaze between glowing screen and glowing fridge interior, she notices she has one unread email. Vera, who prides herself on her impeccable adherence to Inbox Zero, lets the fridge door swing shut with a resigned sigh.

It’s a message from her co-worker, Fred. The subject line reads “You’re invited to cook with me on HotPot!”

Her brow furrows. How did Fred get my personal email address? And why is he sending me spam?

She clicks into the email nonetheless. Fred is harmless enough. He would never send her spam without a good reason.

You’ve been invited to cook with me on HotPot!, reads the computer-generated message. The recipe I’ve chosen is Winter Mushroom Ragout. Location: your kitchen. Time and date…

As she reads, she starts to laugh. Is this for real? Fred is asking me out on an internet date… to cook!

Okay… okay, Vera thinks to herself, why not? Cooking alone can be a drag day after day… There’s only so much joy one can get out of really nice plating if I am the only one seeing it. And Fred is a nice guy. Poor Fred though. Too scared to ask a girl out on a real date… hah!

Vera clicks “Accept” in the email. She immediately gets a confirmation message that contains a link to a virtual HotPot “room,” as well as instructions to access that room at the appointed cooking time. She makes a note on her calendar for next Wednesday—the scheduled date of the invite—and jots down the ingredients for Mushroom Ragout. She’ll get the stuff this weekend when she goes grocery shopping…

Wednesday, 7:00 PM

Vera has just finished arranging her kitchen counter with all the ingredients for Mushroom Ragout. She pulls up her confirmation message from last week and clicks the link. A browser window pops up.

When the page finishes loading, she sees a dialogue asking her to fill out her name and password or sign in. Since this is first time, Vera fills out the short form to sign up and clicks “okay.”

Next, the page requests camera access and asks her to check her hair. Vera complies, then clicks next.

Finally, she enters the “room.” sees a screen with a list of ingredients, an overview of the Mushroom Ragout recipe, and a message saying “waiting for Fred.” A few moments later, the sound of a bell plays and Fred’s video pops up on the screen!

“Hi Vera,” says Fred, a shy smile on his face. ”I heard you liked to cook, so I thought this would be kind of fun. I saw my sister write about this on her food blog, so I thought I’d give it a try,” he quickly explains.

Vera smiles back. “Wow, this is actually very nice. Thank you for inviting me. Let’s see… so we’re looking at each other’s kitchens?”

Vera and Fred proceed to give each other the grand tour of their own home kitchens. Vera is a bit impressed by how well-decorated his place looks. And those gorgeous copper pots on the walls… unexpected!

Once they’re done, they put their laptops back on the counters. Fred asks “Are you ready to start cooking? This is my first time making ragout, so I hope you can show me the ropes.”

Vera laughs, “I don’t know how much of an expert I am, but I’ll do my best!”

They both click “start” and the first step pops up on their screens.

As they begin chopping and prepping, Vera and Fred converse about everything from work shenanigans to their families. Occasionally, Fred asks Vera about her knife technique. She’s delighted to have a chance to show off her skill (not to mention the 9″ Wüsthof chef’s knife she got herself last year with her holiday bonus).

When it comes time to go on to the next step, Vera asks Fred if he’s ready. Fred says go ahead, and Vera clicks to the next step. She can see Fred’s icon follow hers on the recipe timeline.

“I see you’re following me around,” Vera jokes.

“Of course I am,” Fred replies. Then he turns his head to the side in a funny way. Was there a blush? The lighting in his kitchen was just a little too orange to tell…

The next step is to sautée the onions for 3 minutes. Vera melts a pat of butter in her prized French oven and puts the onions when it’s nice and hot. She is instantly greeted with the densely aromatic smell of onions frying. She gives it a little stir, and can tell from the sizzle on Fred’s end that he’s also put in his onions. She goes back to the laptop to check up on the recipe and notices a little note underneath the current recipe step:

When you toss the onions in the pan, you should be greeted with a sizzle and a wonderful aroma. Can you capture that scent in words?

There’s a little space below to type in an answer. Vera thinks a bit to herself. She’s never been great with food adjectives, and always believed that was best left to the critics and wine snobs. Then she sees a few words appearing on her screen. Looks like Fred is going for it!

Sweet, pungent and toasty. Reminds me a lot of the open air street food markets in India where I was last summer.

Vera smiles. What a lovely way of putting it! She adds her bit:

I used butter, which really releases its aroma and mingles with the onion. My mother’s kitchen always smelled like this in the winter, which let me know a good stew was on its way.

When the 3 minutes are up, Vera is alerted by a ding from her laptop. She snaps out of her nostalgic reverie to run back to the stove. She gives the onions a final toss when she hears Fed says, “Oops I’d better go check up on my onions, or they’ll burn!”

“Don’t think of it as burning, think of it as caramelizing the edges,” Vera quips. “Also, you must tell me about your trip to India! I’ve been dying to go.”

For the next hour and a half, Vera and Fred work their way through the recipe together. When there are periods of waiting or simmering, the are prompted to trade stories and tasting notes via their keyboards. At certain points in the recipe (such as after the herbs have been added), the page also reminds them to taste and savor the dish-in-progress. Vera has never cooked so slowly and so conscientiously before. After all, she was a skilled and well-rehearsed cook: once the stove was on, it was a swift dance of ingredients and utensils to get the food on the plate. And she hardly ever tastes anymore because she’s so confident in her skill. But here she was, being prompted to eat the onions after they’ve been caramelized! She finds it’s a very pleasant change of pace. Though the recipe would have taken her half as long when she’s cooking alone, she doesn’t seem to mind. Especially not when there’s companionship to fill in the gaps of waiting.

When the ragout is almost done, Vera lifts the lid off her pot and inhales deeply. “This smells gorgeous!” she exclaims.

Fred agrees, “Mine came out really good as well. Too bad we don’t have smell-o-vision yet!”

They both click “Finish” on the last step of the recipe, and the screen changes to give the video chat more space. The recipe goes away and is replaced with a text field marked “Tasting Notes.”

“I can’t wait to eat this. I’m so hungry,” says Fred. “Would you like to eat together?”

“Of course! This looks perfect. Let me just relocate you to the dining table.”

“Take it easy, I’m heavy.” Fred jokes.

“Nonsense,” Vera chuckles.

They ladle some mushroom ragout into bowls and sit down at their respective tables with their laptops. Vera pours herself a glass of burgandy and raises it to the screen. From his end, Fred raises a bottle of stout.


And with that, they take their first bites together.

  1. What a cute story, Tina! I wonder how long it’ll take for them until they ditch your concept and goes for IRL cooking, though ;)

    I’m still curious as to how strangers can connect through this. If it needs to be people you know, then I feel you’re limited to those you know, but are too far away from to cook with, and those that are too shy to cook together in real life (which I guess would be a passing thing, as they get to know each other). Considering that you set the date in advance, people you know and live close to can just as well come over. After all, the real life is a little bit better than a screen – we can’t escape that…

    So this is not to say that your concept wouldn’t work with Fred and Vera. I just think the strangers aspect is interesting, so I would love to see you imagine a story there as well! (Or maybe I just like to read your stories, so I want more. Haha)

    - Kristin Breivik (Dec 13 at 8:56 pm)