The Kitchen Test

by on January 31, 2011 at 10:04 am in Economics, Food and Drink, History | Permalink

Here is Paul Krugman, noting that innovations for the kitchen have slowed down.  He cites this earlier, mid-90s piece of his on kitchens, which I would have cited had I known about it.  His conclusion:

By any reasonable standard, the change in how America lived between 1918 and 1957 was immensely greater than the change between 1957 and the present.

As Krugman did in the mid-1990s, I now cook in a 1950s kitchen and it suits me fine.  I use the microwave reluctantly and when I first met Natasha, eight years ago, she and Yana thought it noteworthy that I did not know how to use the device at all.  I do not see that my cooking stands at a disadvantage.

Alexander J. Field has a long and very good piece on the evolution of kitchen technology.  He concludes:

Aside from the automatic dishwasher in the 1930s (which achieved significant penetration only beginning in the 1960s), the garbage disposer (introduced in the 1950s, but low penetration until the late 1960s) and the microwave oven in the 1970s, there have been no truly revolutionary kitchen appliances in the last eight decades.

Field makes good fun of the electric can opener and the electric carving knife.

Here is a related Krugman post on the 19th century.

Cliff January 31, 2011 at 6:08 am

Technology is of course bounded by the laws of thermodynamics. Is there really that much difference between what we use and an open fire/wood stove? I guess there hasn't been much innovation in desks over the last thousand years or so, either.

Kieselguhr Kid January 31, 2011 at 6:12 am

Any South Indian – American kitchen should be able to produce an interesting counterfactual.

When I was growing up, my mother made dosas and vadais using a Cuisinart; maybe you could've done something similar with a blender. The results were superb. But occasionally Indians would complain that you couldn't get the same results people got in the old country using, of course, big granite wheels.

Well, in the '90s or thereabouts, Indians began buying the "Ultra Grind" — big granite wheels, that you plug in. I have one that was sent to me as a gift — the shipping costs must've been something. The motor alone weighs a ton and seems like the kind of thing that wants a bank of capacitors out back.

But, it does make a hell of a dosa.

Baphomet January 31, 2011 at 6:14 am

Surely the induction stove is a revolutionary breakthrough? After all, David Hume showed that induction does not work.

David January 31, 2011 at 6:16 am

Hello, affordable automatic espresso machines? Maybe that's an outlier. I suspect that we are no longer innovating our kitchen activities, so there is little pressure to innovate kitchen technology. There have been innovations regarding food all right, but almost all of those work to *discourage* any serious kitchen use. Many households I've visited have amazingly functional but almost entirely ornamental kitchens these days.

Gerald January 31, 2011 at 6:18 am

I would count the food processor as a major innovation in the kitchen.

It permits ordinary people to make dishes that could previously be made only in a commercial kitchen full of apprentices who chop the ingredients.

miu miu January 31, 2011 at 6:24 am

That's not true.

John Thacker January 31, 2011 at 6:32 am

I think that any East Asian would disagree with Field's paragraph, because for them, the electric rice cooker is truly revolutionary. It dates from the 1950s, but with significant improvements in decades hence– 1960s for "stay warm" features, and various microprocessor logic improvements starting in the 1980s.

What we've seen since the 1960s is primarily advances in specialized cooking appliances, including the food processor in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as noted earlier in the thread. An electric rice cooker qualifies as specialized in most Western households, but is a revolutionary piece of cookware used every day in East Asian households. At the same time, we've also seen huge advances in outsourcing and specializing in food, both by a massive increase in going to restaurants (and having women work outside the home, the trends go together) and a massive increase in ready-to-prepare foods (whether microwave or the heat-in-the-oven and serve variety used by Trader Joe's often.)

It does seem a bit strange to me to hear economists complaining that there have been no real advances in the kitchen and food when the advances have been in specialized patterns of trade, both within the home and without. One might as well say that there have been no real advances in food productions, since most people who garden garden the same way as they always have, ignoring that most food production is now done on an industrial scale, where the real changes and benefits in yields have occurred.

Meg January 31, 2011 at 6:34 am

The rice cooker revolutionized my cooking, but though I got one in the last 15 years I'm not sure when they came into common use. Cooking rice on a stove requires attention, whereas with a rice cooker it requires two brief periods of activity, between which I can return to reading blogs.

Andreas Moser January 31, 2011 at 6:38 am

Maybe people/companies finally realize that we just don't NEED any new stuff. I actually still don't even need an I-Phone.

JB January 31, 2011 at 6:41 am

I seem to remember a prominent economist arguing a few years back that the Internet provides rather significant utility gains for most people, but that these gains don't show up in GDP (because most content is free), and so measures of productivity in the Internet age will understate actual productivity growth.

Vacslav January 31, 2011 at 6:48 am

Perhaps there is no demand for more time- and effort-saving innovation in the kitchen and in the laundry room. Rich and middle-class people who are supposed to drive and support innovation are satisfied with their basic sets of blenders, toasters and microwaves. Culinary diversity is provided by restaurants and bistros and cafes and even street food – surely there is a lot of innovation there.

john personna January 31, 2011 at 6:57 am

I value my fuzzy logic rice cooker (used for a variety of whole grains) and my breadmaker (used less these days). Oh, and I love my new sensor microwave. "Frozen Snacks" rocks.

Freddie January 31, 2011 at 7:00 am

One thing I've found, in my travels around the Internet, is that many people are very protective of the idea of steady and continuous progress.

Floccina January 31, 2011 at 7:03 am

In addition to what other readers point out more food comes partly done. Today we buy bagged salad mixes par baked breads etc.

Alex Godofsky January 31, 2011 at 7:22 am

(Full disclosure: I have ordered The Great Stagnation but haven't gotten to reading it yet.)

I'm trying to figure out how this is whole thing isn't an extended exercise in question-begging. It seems to me the discussion has flowed something like this.

Tyler: (In his book) The median American wage has stagnated … in conclusion, this is because of stagnation in technological innovation.

Other people: Objection! The median American wage has only stagnated according to CPI, but CPI suffers from (among other things) new product bias.

Tyler: Sure, but it always did and there was more (measured by quality-of-life-improvement) technological innovation before, therefore the median wage has still stagnated compared to previous eras. Therefore my conclusion that technological innovation has stagnated is still true.

Am I missing something?

Yancey Ward January 31, 2011 at 7:36 am

Yeah, things have stalled so much that too many of us have had to resort to eating out or microwaving pre-cooked food items. Such utility missed.

Norman Pfyster January 31, 2011 at 7:44 am

I sort of get the impression that the only kitchen innovation that would impress these people would be the Star Trek replicator.

Dan Weber January 31, 2011 at 7:53 am

As others have said, there are some big differences between how I cook and how my parents cooked:

Definitely the rice cooker. Dump it in, and then go do other things.

George Foreman grill. It's evolutionary, not revolutionary (you can do 95% of what it does with a waffle iron), but still helpful.

Steamable vegetable in the microwave are wonderful.

Also note this fun line in the 1996 article:

nowhere near as hard as, say, designing a robot that can vacuum your living room, an achievement that is still probably many decades away.

Zing!

dirk January 31, 2011 at 8:01 am

My kitchen has a Honduran immigrant cook and maid. How many people had that in the 50's!

Pseu January 31, 2011 at 8:07 am

Looking at my kitchen, the big advances seem to be not in the gadgets, but in the ingredients I have available. Dozens of spices from all over the world. Fresh tropical produce 12 months in the year. Huge variety of salad greens. Looked at this way, there has indeed been a huge amount of progress beteween 1957 and the present. Did the palette of ingredients change this much in the 1918-57 time period? I don't know, but I would suspect not.

BV January 31, 2011 at 8:13 am

David Curran above is correct. Its shocking to see "great" economists miss such a simple explanation.

Also … David … very concise way to make your point: could you order a pizza from a 1950's kitchen … classic!

Matt January 31, 2011 at 8:27 am

For small tools, I'd nominate the microplane and the instant-read thermometer. Appliance wise, the home vacuum sealer. And thermocouples and PIDs are now cheap enough the home sous-vide cookery is viable.

Innovation in transport and logistics has allowed the quality and variety of ingredients to skyrocket. And the internet means that a dozen recipe for the dish you want to cook are only a Google search away.

Glen Raphael January 31, 2011 at 8:55 am

Forget the appliances, what about the other stuff in the kitchen? Knives are better and cheaper than they were 30 years ago. So are pans (especially nonstick ones!). Or consider the difference between an old fashioned box grater and a Microplane. Basic metal tools are all sharper-edged, lighter, safer, easier to hold, and cheaper than ever before.

Or if you don't like cooking there's now the option of ordering not just a pizza but practically any style of food from any restaurant in your city through services such as Seamlessweb or Waitersonwheels. Ten years ago you could only order takeout from restaurants that offered it and you couldn't call up the exact menu at menupages.com and order via your favorite online delivery-aggregation service.

John Thacker January 31, 2011 at 9:13 am

As Krugman did in the mid-1990s, I now cook in a 1950s kitchen and it suits me fine.

Really, Tyler? It would suit you fine to have all the same food choices as the 1950s, and miss out on all the local ethnic food? You, of all people?

It only "suits you fine" because you go out to eat so often, and because you choose to outsource most of your food variety rather than making it yourself, taking advantage of rice cookers, food processors, and other advances but not in your own kitchen.

Lord January 31, 2011 at 9:15 am

The biggest innovations have been granite and stainless steel. TV dinners have been around, well, since TV. Gee, if I had to do without a microwave, I might as well go back to a wood burning stove. Who really needs a refrigerator when ice is available.

These are about as silly as most of the comments here are. Sure, innovations continue, but they are much less life changing. It would take a replicator or robot for that to change significantly. Wake me when they arrive.

Kieselguhr Kid January 31, 2011 at 9:21 am

Comments above about the revolutionariness(?) of the electric rice cooker to rice-eating cultures seem misguided; when I was growing up my mom used a double-boiler and honestly, it's pretty damn close and convenient; really the right thing to use if you don't have a rice cooker.

Jonathan Beerhalter January 31, 2011 at 9:36 am

JB,

Having read "The Great Stagnation" I'll try to clarify.

It's not that innovation has stopped, but that the rate of change has slowed dramatically. The difference between having to wash dishes by hand and using an automated dishwasher is much bigger than cooking rice by hand and using an automated rice cooker.

So there have been kitchen advances, god knows I love my Silpat for making soft chocolate chip cookies, but the magnitude of change has slowed….dramatically. Because of that, Americans don't feel like their lives are getting much better.

Jeremy H. January 31, 2011 at 10:13 am

"I've seen in the MR comments (and elsewhere) a lot of anecdotal comparison of recent gains vs. earlier gains in technology. Don't we now have this, don't we now have that, and so on. Of course." -TC

Fighting anecdotes with anecdotes.

Cliff January 31, 2011 at 10:23 am

So basically Jonathan, Tyler's argument is equivalent to this: "I make $10,000,000 this year, each year I make $1,000,000 more than last year, but my income is stagnating because I get less utility from each new million than the million before that"? Everyone is so happy they can't get much happier, so we are stagnant?

Andrew January 31, 2011 at 11:14 am

How much are cooks like bushcrafters?

50s fan January 31, 2011 at 11:28 am

Here's what we know about Tyler and Paul:

– They use a percolator to make their coffee.

– They wash their dishes by hand.

– They defrost their frig / freezer every month or two.

– They don't use a garbage disposal.

etc.

Sam Penrose January 31, 2011 at 11:45 am

Birth control?

dearieme January 31, 2011 at 11:46 am

The screwtop wine bottle is going to make the corkscrew redundant.

P.S. "Milk no longer delivered fresh": it is to us, and it's much better than that homogenised supermarket rubbish.

Steve January 31, 2011 at 12:38 pm

Consider this: Before the dishwasher was invented, it would have been possible to imagine, and wish for, a device that washed dishes automatically.

What truely disruptive breakthough can you imagine for the kitchen that relies on traditional, mechanical technologies? Probably not much.

Any dramatic innovation you can imagine probably relies heaviliy on information technology–and that is exactly where the fastest progress is occuring.

What would you wish for in the kitchen today?

How about an automated kitchen or robot that responds to voice commands and prepares food automatically? That is not a mechanical appliance problem, it an artifial intelligence problem.

It will happen, but when it does the impact will be far beyond your kitchen.

Watch these videos of IBM's Watson computer and think about the possibilities as this technology develops and becomes affordable:

http://econfuture.wordpress.com/2011/01/28/ibm-wa

ProfDC January 31, 2011 at 12:40 pm

I can't believe that nobody has noted this yet. The Roomba ("a robot that can vacuum your living room, an achievement that is still probably many decades away") was introduced in 2002, a scant six years after Krugman's article. According to Wikipedia, over 2.5 million had been sold by January 2008.

FamilyLifeBoat January 31, 2011 at 1:39 pm

At some point making something hot or cold is good enough. A franklin stove could get you to a particular temperature +/- 50 degrees. Now we can easily set a temperature and expect it to be +/-10 degrees. But with sous vide equipment you can get +/- 1 degree accuracy. That's much different then cooking over a campfire.

How about the cost to own? A modern frig has way better insulation now and uses far less energy to manufacture and run.

How about the sheer cost of computer power? In the mid 90's RAM cost $1000/MB. That means a 32GB iPhone 4 would have cost $32,500,000 just for the memory. That makes a real difference.

Cars, a typical car has about two dozen microprocessors in it. The ones running your ABS brakes are thousands of times more powerful then ENIAC and you'd be hard pressed to find it even if you went looking for it.

Yancey Ward January 31, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Will you be continuing with the furnished basement test, the office test, the living room test, family room test, the furnace test, and the air conditioner test?

Or the bathroom. Where are the Star Trek dereplicators that supply the physical material to turn our shit into sushi? Really, in the last 100 years we still have flush toilets and waste processing centers.

Finch January 31, 2011 at 2:14 pm

> Really, in the last 100 years we still have flush toilets and waste
> processing centers.

Well, 100 years ago we generally just let the sewage pipes flow somewhere we didn't care about, like the ocean.

Waste water treatment has evolved a lot. Admittedly, the pace is limited by the relatively long working lifetimes of water works, so it moves in rare, big, jumps.

I notice a theme here: progress is generally viewed as slow in a particular area by people who don't know much about that particular area. Ask somebody about their area of expertise and they'll light up with rave reviews of, say, rice cookers, or 64-bit addressing, or whatever. It may be that we have not stagnated, but rather that progress has gotten so vast that it's just hard to keep track of.

Chris T January 31, 2011 at 2:26 pm

It may be that we have not stagnated, but rather that progress has gotten so vast that it's just hard to keep track of.

We've also gotten used to it. When something changes, we hardly even notice.

Try going back to a 56k modem or VCR.

dirk January 31, 2011 at 2:47 pm

"is my family really the only family left in the US with a housewife who also cooks hundred percent of our meals from scratch"

If you're telling the truth, it is.

David Curran still wins the thread. Scott Sumner already alluded in this direction in his conclusion of TGS review:

"Here’s what I think most people still want:

1. A bigger and nicer house, with granite counter-tops.

2. More restaurant meals.

3. More fun vacations."

I like the fine irony that two of the main things we want are nicer looking kitchens and spending less time in them.

dp January 31, 2011 at 3:23 pm

TC-

Cooking ain't that difficult.

Steve-O January 31, 2011 at 5:57 pm

Another vote for access to ingredients, recipes, and how-to lessons on TV and the internet making my home-dining much much better. When I went off to college, my cooking skills were limited to following the instructions on a box of frozen or boxed food. TV and the internet (and some trial and error) have taught me how to make dishes that are (imo) tastier and more complex than those my mother made, who cooked around 10 meals a week for 40 years. I find it very hard to believe that would have happened 50 years ago, although maybe I'd have a wife that would make all the casseroles I could eat.

I do agree that the stuff currently in my kitchen, aside from the food, probably hasn't changed much from 1950s kitchen, except in terms of cost and quality.

Simmer January 31, 2011 at 8:33 pm

You economist seem to miss the obvious sometimes. The economy has changed. Moms work more and spend less time in the kitchen. Innovation has come in the form of restaurants, not new kitchen appliances. It would be interesting to know how the cost of restaurant food has changed in the last 100 years when you measure it in calories per dollar.

babar February 1, 2011 at 12:53 am

compare bathrooms of 40 years ago to those of today. different story. houses have more bathrooms and bigger ones at that. it's the demand. (i think it's ridiculous, but hey.)

Marc Roston February 1, 2011 at 6:54 am

I think the greatest innovation is the "use" of the kitchen. Clearly it has shifted from a room focused on utility and necessity to an actual form of home entertainment. That's huge innovation, in my mind. As others note, this comes from enhancements to the underlying technology where industrial production takes care of much of what used to need to happen in the kitchen.

I take two days to bake a loaf of sourdough bread because I can, not because I need to. I point to that specific example because that's giving up on 20th century technology (packaged yeast) in favor of the truly ancient "fleeing Egypt can't wait for my dough to rise" technology. Add to that paying "retail" for my ingredients makes my loaf of bread much more expensive, not including my time. In my book, that is kitchen as entertainment technological innovation.

albatross February 1, 2011 at 7:32 am

There's a nice point that's hinted at in a couple of other comments, but never quite nailed down. There are broadly two kinds of technological progress:

a. Something new comes into the world–either it didn't exist before, or it was too expensive or hard to get/use to become widespread until now. Think of personal computers, laptops, wireless networks, and smart phones.

b. Something that was already in widespread use changes internally–the basic interface to the thing stays mostly the same, but it works better, uses less power, is cheaper to manufacture, is safer, etc. Think of modern appliances, phones, cars, improved medicines, etc.

I think a lot of the complaint about lack of progress amounts to complaining about the switch from type (a) progress to type (b) progress. And the thing to remember is that type (b) progress can, over time, have huge, even revolutionary effects. But it's a lot less obvious than type (a) progress.

I mean, you could get an automatic transmission car in 1951, and you can get one now in 2011. The interface is basically the same, and a driver accustomed to 2011 cars can drive a 1951 car just fine. But below the level of the interface, the two cars are enormously different. The 2011 car uses far less fuel, is much safer in a crash, breaks down far less often, and puts out much less nasty exhaust. There's not some shocking visible change in the world going from that 1951 car to the 2011 car, but those two are still quite different.

Chris T February 1, 2011 at 10:12 am

Albatross – All progress is really type b. 'New' technology only comes about through the constant improvement of 'old' technology. ie: The transistor only exists because of improvements in our manufacturing capabilities, advances in the understanding of electricity, and materials.

eddie February 1, 2011 at 11:50 am

Also, parenthetically… Field mentions the underwhelming adoption rate of the trash compactor (under four percent in 2001). More's the pity. While I still agree it's not revolutionary, I'd certainly hate to be without mine, and would even rank it above my beloved stand mixer.

JayT February 3, 2011 at 2:51 pm

I don't know if it would be considered an innovation or not, but the quality of kitchen equipment has skyrocketed in the last 15 years or so. I remember when I was first getting into cooking that it was really hard to find something as simple as a frying pan that was actually made from good solid metal (not aluminum) and it was even more expensive to get non stick that would last longer then a few months.

Now, I can go into Wal Mart, pay $15 and get something that is significantly better then what cost $100 15 years ago.

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