Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ma cuisine me manque

There's a "Seinfeld" episode where Kramer and Jerry make a bet about whether Kramer will, as he claims, install "levels" in his apartment. We never see what he means by this, because he of course never does it. He claims to have won the bet, however, because the levels could be done, even if they were not, in fact, done.

My experiences of cooking in the dorm are sort of like if Kramer had gone ahead and installed those levels, and in an even more complicated way then first anticipated.

With a small saucepan (no cover), a spatula, a small plate, a large plate, two forks, two knives, one sharp knife (a newish addition!), a small plastic cutting board, a strainer, a cereal bowl, two mugs, and an increasing number of glasses as things like mustard get finished, I've made lentil salads and steak, steamed artichokes and from-scratch tomato sauce. Poached eggs that fell apart, and poached eggs that didn't (trick seems to be removing the pot from the heat while you put the egg in). A wide variety of salads, and a wide variety of pasta dishes that involve putting said wide variety of salads on top of pasta and increasing the amount of cheese accordingly. I not only have no devices, but every time I want to prepare anything using heat, I have to manage to get whatever I need down the hall without dropping it, while managing also to lock my door and to open the kitchen door once the long walk is over.

When I first agreed to move into a dorm at the ancient age of 27, after having first taught myself to cook, then taught myself to cook decently well and with the help of a dishwasher, I assumed I'd be living off bread, cheese, fruit, pastry, and prewashed bags of arugula. Which wouldn't have been a tragedy, but my will to eat hot meals proved too strong. So off I go, dressed in such finery as an NYU t-shirt, Old Navy lounge pants, and a Uniqlo fleece, and a, uh, fancy feast is accomplished.

So it can be done. But I wouldn't say it should. I mean, I think I'm doing the right thing cooking, given that the alternatives - be hungry all the time, or spend all my money and then some on eating out. But I don't think it's especially noble or authentic or effective to cook in a bare-bones way. Give me a food processor and a dishwasher (or better yet, reunite me with the ones I have back home), and I can make a pizza.

Megan McArdle's story about non-cooks' kitchens is the latest installment of the genre of social commentary picking up on how the flashier the kitchen, the less committed the cook. The contrast of the grandmother who cooked with nothing (although no doubt more than I have going in the dorm) and the yuppie who uses her fancy stove as a closet extension (isn't this from "Sex and the City"?) is no doubt one we all have anecdotal evidence to back up, no doubt (and here the stats McArdle cites are helpful) evidence of a social phenomenon. So, while WWPD is all about having quibbles with articles, I don't really have any here.

What I wonder about, though, is why we have to turn this into a question of causation and not correlation, why we have to imagine that a comfortable kitchen is a soulless one, that something is lost when you add a blender or a silicone cannelé mold (want! want! but not spend-15-euros-on-it want) to the mix. Maybe in practice, these things go hand in hand, and maybe they developed for interconnected reasons, but they don't necessarily have to coincide.


Britta said...

I feel like McArdle (and Flanagan) live in a small, windowless room with nothing but SATC showing on infinite loop, given the number of "I saw this on SATC, therefore it must be a phenomenon" stories that come out.

Yeah, on the kitchens, it turns out wealthy people will usually have nice stuff, whether or not they use it. That isn't shocking. That doesn't mean that having less nice stuff = more use, nor that people who enjoy cooking don't enjoy expensive appliances, or well made kitchen equipment. In fact, people I know who love to cook and who are not wealthy who tend to spend money disproportionately on kitchen stuff, getting kitchen aid mixers and viking ranges, because, if you are doing something every day, it's nice to use good equipment that works well, and it is worth the investment.

People who are wealthy probably have nice TVs even if they don't watch much television, but you don't see arguments claiming that to be a TV connoisseur, you need to have an old 10 inch screen black and white TV.

I think there is something to be said for not owning lots of single-purpose kitchen gadgets, in that they are generally not very useful and take up too much space, but that doesn't relate to the expensiveness of the gadgets you do own.

Also, knives (which she opens with) are the *worst* example of something that you can get for cheap, because good knives are more than worth it, and knife price is strongly correlated to knife quality. (I found that out the hard way after buying a $2 knife from Kmart, which had the sharpness of a particularly dull butter knife, and all the food I ever cut with it looked like it had been hacked apart with an ice pick).

In general, I would say that price and quality of kitchen stuff correlates pretty well. Maybe if you don't cook very much, a cheapo off-brand blender is ok, but buying stuff that breaks after a few uses in the long run is more annoying and probably more expensive than buying an expensive blender that lasts for 20 years. I've found that 99% of the kitchen appliance stuff I've bought from IKEA is basically worthless, and melts or breaks incredibly quickly. However cheap it is, it's kind of a waste of money. The "cheap" stuff made 80 years ago was 1) relatively expensive compared to people's incomes, and 2) usually quite well-made and durable. Now, to get the same quality, you have to spend more money and go a bit more upmarket than Target or IKEA.

My anecdata involving my grandmother, who loved to cook, canned her own fruit and vegetables, blah blah, was that she had a well-stocked spacious kitchen with relatively nice appliances.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


In McArdle's defense, it was that someone she was interviewing mentioned having witnessed the stove-as-closet, evidence if anything that McArdle is insufficiently versed in that show. Flanagan, perhaps, but the writer this most applies to is Kay Hymowitz, who's a big fan of pop-culture-as-anecdata generally, but also who just recently told us that the reason, young educated women can't get married (ahem!) has something to do with Mr. Big.

(The problem for me with Mr. Big references is that Chris Noth lives pretty much on top of my department, and I used to see him constantly, looking not very Mr. Big-like, including, most notoriously, on the subway. Given that his main move on the show was to sidle up to Carrie in his chauffeured car, seeing him on the train was kind of amazing.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Oh, and as for kitchen stuff generally, agreed re: the difference between single-use and high-quality, although if you really do make one thing all the time, single-use isn't so insane. As in, I may have reached the pizza-making threshold at which a pizza stone is in order.

Anonymous said...

The pizza stone is worth buying, it doesn't cost that much and really does improve your crust. I've had mine for about five years and use it on about a weekly basis (mostly for bread).

As for appliances, my wife and I still use the KitchenAid mixer she inherited from her great-grandmother. It still kneads and mixes well after decades of use.

Oddly, I've found that buying quality products also pays off with strollers. We bought one of those high-priced strollers (a Mountain Buggy) before the birth of our first child, and are about to use it for the third successive baby. As the years have gone by, the stroller that was once mocked as a sign of status obsessed extravagance has become a symbol of Yankee thriftiness.

PG said...

I am full of agreement! And I have links of agreement to hand because in the absence of blogging, I abuse Twitter and I'd already tweeted about this.

I agree with Phoebe that McArdle is re-treading a previously-noted phenomenon. However, it's been so long since I read "Bobos" that the article instead reminded me most of Michael Pollan's article on the paradox of the popularity of cooking shows and decreasing popularity of cooking.

I agree with Britta that it's not surprising that wealthy people have nice stuff for cooking. One of McArdle's few statistics is that "between 1974 and 2005, the area of the average new kitchen nearly doubled." What she doesn't mention is that so did the size of the average new home. To make an effective claim based on the size of kitchens that they've increased in importance, this must be based on their role relative to overall home size/discretionary spending/etc. And of course increases in average -- as opposed to median -- consumer behavior has been driven significantly by the top 10%'s much-increased absolute real income, as well as our increased share of the country's income. Over 30 years ago, The Washington Post noted that surveys showed that the wealthy were less likely than lower-income Americans to eat 3 meals a day, yet they planned more meals ahead and bought more kitchen gadgets. While McArdle may not be wealthy, I bet more than 10% of her wedding guest list was made up of people who are in the top 10% of incomes or -- if under 30 -- whose parents are.

I agree with Anonymous that strollers also exemplify an increase in spending on what used to be goods that had no high-priced option on the market.

I agree with both Britta and Anonymous that it's generally worth investing lots of money in good kitchen gear because it will hold up for a long time. However, I have had the experience that companies that have moved their manufacturing operations to low labor cost countries often have decreased quality control, so it's worth noting where something is made as well as whether the brand's reputation is good.

PG said...

Finally, despite my skepticism of McArdle's other points, my own experience agrees with her idea that women's greater role in making money leads to spending more money on kitchen stuff. When I had a bridal shower gift list of things for the kitchen, I asked if there was anything he wanted, and his sole request was for a really nice coffeemaker (which his mom bought for us). He wanted us to replace our oven, but that was mainly because he feared I'd gas myself using the very old one in our apartment. With all the other cooking-related things I've gotten, he's been an indifferent and sometimes doubtful bystander ("Why do you need a casserole dish?"). Because of our scanty counter space, his coffeemaker is literally the only thing that stood between me and getting a stand mixer when I could have afforded it. A mutual friend of Phoebe's and mine once expressed surprise that I was making BigLaw money yet had no mixer.

But this is extreme anecdata. Our divergent budgets for kitchen gadgets (if he didn't have a say in household spending, we wouldn't own *two* large flatscreen TV and all 3 major gaming systems) could be based on many differences aside from that of gender. Beliefs about the importance of doing some of one's domestic work even when totally outsourcing it is affordable (he also would have preferred that we send our laundry out). Amount of time spent at home (his job required more hours than mine). Economics of home-cooking (his job paid for every meal he ate at the office and allotted $20+ for each; mine only covered dinners eaten if you had to stay past 10pm). Desire to improve one's cooking skills (he's been out of his parents' house much longer and figures he's good enough). This is why people collect data and do regression analysis if they want to write an article that really sorts out what factors might be driving a particular shift (after first working out whether there actually has been a shift, or if the average American just has more money than his equivalent did 50 years ago), instead of simply declaring the phenomenon exists and vaguely musing about it.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Sorry I missed those tweets!

But yes, Pollan. I knew there'd been someone between Brooks and McArdle - many someones, I suppose - holding forth on The Yuppie Kitchen. And thanks, as always, for the stats.

Anyway, I suspect your anecdata re: wanting kitchen gadgets while your husband voted TVs/video game stuff is parallelled in households across the country.