Kitchen innovation

So apparently the just-so story du jour is that innovation has peaked in (take your pick) 1950 (Paul Krugman) or 1970 (Tyler Cowen), and if that’s not obvious to you just look at your kitchen.  Wait.  No.  Don’t look at your kitchen; look at their kitchens:

Better yet, think about how a typical middle-class family lives today compared with 40 years ago — and compare those changes with the progress that took place over the previous 40 years.

I happen to be an expert on some of those changes, because I live in a house with a late-50s-vintage kitchen, never remodelled. The nonself-defrosting refrigerator, and the gas range with its open pilot lights, are pretty depressing (anyone know a good contractor?) — but when all is said and done it is still a pretty functional kitchen.

Repeat after me: The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”.  The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”.  And neither is the fucking singular.

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.

Repeat after me: The plural of “anecdote” is– hey, you started before I did!

Karl Smith retorts:

I live in a circa 2007 kitchen. To my eyes my grandmother, who raised her kids in the post-war boom, might as well have been keeping chickens in the back and de-feathering them by hand – a suggestion she might have found only mildly unorthodox.


The structure kitchen itself is also vastly different. My grandmother’s sink was an insult, the dishwasher a joke. The oven, such as it is, was functional enough – but so would a wood stove oven – and the two cook about as evenly. More importantly, being in the Kitchen was a depressing affair.

The kicker, for Smith, is that all this kitchen innovation has occurred despite drastically depressed demand:

All of that and here is the kicker – people cook far less. That is, the demand side of cooking innovation is lacking.

Indeed, I find it ironic that one could both lament the housing boom and related equity extraction as well as point to our poor kitchens as indicative of our poor living standards.

For my part, I cook in the “shitty lowest-bidder apartment” variant of a 1950s-era kitchen.  (To be fair, the appliances were probably replaced in the mid-’70s.)  I don’t have a microwave or a dishwasher.  But what I do have is a chef’s knife made from a stainless steel alloy that no-one would’ve even thought about thinking about when my kitchen was built, and I keep it sharp on a ceramic hone that cost me less than ten bucks.  The stuff I chop, slice, and otherwise separate with it goes into nonstick heavy-gauge aluminum pans that mask even the considerable deficiencies of my stovetop.  They are also cheap enough to fit into a student’s budget.  The list of little kitchen things that represent huge step changes over forty-year-old technology is far longer than that, but I won’t bore you with the rest of the details.

It gives one to wonder what Cowen and Krugman would consider to be sufficiently significant innovation — Star Trek-style food replicators, perhaps?

Update: Megan McArdle and her readers comment, vociferously and at length.


4 Responses to “Kitchen innovation”

  1. February 1, 2011 at 14:22

    I live in a kitchen universe in which one device that was set and prepped the previous night dispenses hot, delicious coffee whenever we stumble into the kitchen, and another set the night before with minimal effort on my part dispenses hot, delicious steel-cut oatmeal.

    I fail to see why Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowan’s luddism, apathy, and total ignorance of what cooking was actually like in the fifties stand as a point of any kind, in any way.

  2. 2 aczarnowski
    February 2, 2011 at 09:58

    A lot of times it’s just not worth the effort to get out of bed and go beat the guys looking at the back wall of the cave over the head with whatever totem of the awesome future you picked up off the side table on your way out.

  3. 3 Petey
    February 3, 2011 at 07:12

    I think somebody just picked up an old cookbook, wrote an op ed on the pictures and called it insightful.

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