Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

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:
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.)

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?
Reading all three posts, I think the main conclusion I can draw is that I cook more than Kugman or Cowen.


Enbrethiliel said...


I still cream butter and sugar by hand.

And a friend and I, dividing the labour between us, once made pavalova with nothing but a whisk. (But I wouldn't do that again.)

I like this post, Mr. Darwin. =) It makes me want to cook something.

Foxfier said...

Good grief, I nearly hurt myself whipping cream for my daughter's birthday cake frosting. *shudder*
(... just realized I could've used the magic bullet. Oh well, it wouldn't have worked for the angel food cake, anyways.)

To be fair, we don't have any gosh-golly-wow stuff on the level of going from an ice box to a my fridge and coffin freezer, let alone the difference between my grandma's wood stove (which also heated the house's water) and an electric stove. (Although my uncle's stove that senses the size of the pot on it and adjusts the area it heats is pretty dang awesome.)

I would guess you're right about the guy not cooking much, though.

Foxfier said...

Another difference-- I KNOW that my grandmothers' 1950s era kitchens had wood stoves and cast iron pans, partly because one of said iron pans is in my kitchen right now.

Mom grew up, in the early sixties, going out and shaving the "hair" off of the side of beef in the well room before cutting off some for dinner.

Knives were expensive-- more than my good set, for fewer blades. (My mom has two of those mini-machetes-- holy COW they last, even though you can see the blade was once a quarter to a half inch bigger at the handle.)

New stuff:
The home vac-u-seal-a-meal thing for leftovers.
Cutting boards that don't have slivers.
Cinnamon year-round, and cheap enough to be used as a daily treat on morning toast, and dozens of sugar substitutes that are a lot closer than the old ones.
Plastic storage that keeps bugs out, not just "most."
That heat-resistant rubber like stuff that's used to make spatulas you can use in a wok or oven gloves that don't catch fire.
Recipe collections on line-- more than once I've cooked while reading the instructions off of a laptop.
Plastic baby bottles.
Plastic milk jugs-- shoot, plastic EVERYTHING containers. (I'd never thought of what shampoo came in before there was plastic, until someone shared a memory of the "fun" of dropping a glass shampoo bottle in the shower.)
Electric thermometers, especially the ones you can just scan the food and it tells you the internal temp.
Programmable rice cookers and all their cousins.
Water/ice dispensers on fridges.

*reads to the end*
Oy, the coffee snobbery. Boiled and percolated coffee is better than drip coffee, if the person making it knows what they're doing and it starts with the same quality of stuff, and it still comes down to a matter of taste. (FtLoLGA, a press-pot is basically boiled coffee crossed with tea, and it's the new coffee-snob fad.)

lissla lissar said...

The I Hate to Cook Book was published in the Sixties. The writer acknowledged the necessity of cooking, no matter how much you hated to do it. It's not necessary any more. It's a hobby. It's specialised, and full of expensive gadgetry. A Fifties or Sixties kitchen wouldn't have impedimenta and cookbooks devoted to, say, Thai, Korean, Greek, and Middle Eastern cooking. Now lots of people do. It's become a leisure activity and a cause- cook more meals at home! Don't buy only frozen food! Avoid gluten/transfats/animal fat/HFCS!

Now if you don't want to cook you can eat out or buy only prepared/frozen food, and not get bored or die of scurvy or something. That wasn't possible a few decades ago. Food culture has changed enormously.

I don't have a big or fancy kitchen by modern standards. I've got a mezzaluna, stand mixer, blender,slower cooker, microplane grater, food processor, immersion blender, good quality knives, and silicone bakeware.

Kitchens said...

Your sounds rally good and informative in above all three posts. Now I understand the meaning of cooking and what is the reason behind it, Why few people hated it.

Mrs. Zummo said...

Reminds me of an article I saw in Martha Stewart Living a few years ago. Martha was waxing poetic about laundry day, when her whole family dropped everything to do laundry all day long, because it took that long. Sorry Martha, I'm not inspired to turn in my washer and dryer to give up 18 hrs of my week to laundry. I get annoyed now doing laundry which mostly involves moving clothes from machine to machine, pushing a bunch of buttons, and (oh the effort!) folding and putting away. We've got it pretty good.

Barb said...

There were definitely stand mixers in 1953. My mother and her sisters (not wealthy people) all had one. My mother received one for a wedding gift in 1952.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm really stupid, but how else *do* you cream butter and sugar (and get the proper texture in the finished product) except by hand? I've never heard of anyone doing it any other way!

Darwin said...

I've done it by hand with a fork, but it's much easier with a handheld mixer -- either electric or crank operated.

A stand mixer like a KitchenAid would work well too, but we don't have one yet.

Foxfier said...

Stand mixer always worked the best for me, although a good electric handmixer was good, too. Never had success by hand.

Charenn29 said...

i enjoy it doing with my hands.