As it happens, my kitchen--a galley kitchen in an urban apartment--was probably typical of 1953 in terms of major appliances (a stove and a refrigerator) and cupboard space. And yet, in some of the most important respects, it still wasn't a 1953 kitchen. 1953 kitchens did not have electric drip coffee brewers, stand mixers, blenders, food processors, or crock pots. I used at least one of these, and often two or more, every day. Saran Wrap, aluminum foil, and tupperware were novelty products; my 1950 Betty Crocker picture cookbook contains instructions for storing food using waxed paper and damp towels, because that's how the majority of housewives did it. The book also assumes that its readers will cream butter and sugar by hand for cakes, percolate or boil their coffee, beat egg whites with a rotary beater, and so forth. Anyone who has attempted to beat egg whites by hand can attest that the transition to electrically-assisted baking is not a small improvement. (Men, who tend not to bake as much as women, may be prone to overlook this.)Reading all three posts, I think the main conclusion I can draw is that I cook more than Kugman or Cowen.
My pots and pans are also vastly higher quality--aside from the privileged few who could afford copper, most Americans were cooking on thin, low-quality stainless steel and aluminum pans that deformed easily and had hot spots. While I'm obviously an outlier--a guest at my birthday party this weekend gaped and said "What do you do with all those pans on your wall?" most Americans still have substantially better quality cookware than they used to. Nonstick is a major innovation, even if it has degraded the quality of pan-searing.
Then there is the food. I simply don't believe that either Tyler or Paul Krugman have ever, as adults, cooked the way that a 1954 cook did in the most meaningful sense. I don't believe that they have gone without fresh produce for six to eight months at a time, as my mother did in her childhood--and was told to be grateful for the frozen vegetables which hadn't been available when her mother was young. And this was not some urban food desert; my mother grew up in a farm town where the produce, during the summer and early autumn months, is some of the best I've ever had.
Is the shift to flash frozen produce greater, or less great, than the shift from flash frozen to the fresh produce made possible by falling trade barriers, rising air travel, and the advent of container shipping? Does it matter that some of these are political, rather than electrical, innovations?
Monday, January 31, 2011
Progress in the Kitchen
Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen argue that the pace of technological change has slowed since the 50s, in terms of how the ordinary man or woman is affected by technology, and use kitchen technology as an example. Megan McArdle points out there has been a pretty astounding amount of change both in kitchen technology itself, but even more so in the technology that results in the availability and price of the food you bring into the kitchen: