The Economics of Kitchens

Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen have a couple of interesting posts discussing the issue of technological progress through the lens of their kitchens.  Paul Krugman channels his younger self, quoting something he wrote in 1996:

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. The 1957 owners didn't have a microwave, and we have gone from black and white broadcasts of Sid Caesar to off-color humor on The Comedy Channel, but basically they lived pretty much the way we do. Now turn the clock back another 39 years, to 1918 -- and you are in a world in which a horse-drawn wagon delivered blocks of ice to your icebox, a world not only without TV but without mass media of any kind (regularly scheduled radio entertainment began only in 1920). And of course back in 1918 nearly half of Americans still lived on farms, most without electricity and many without running water. 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.

I presume that he has since moved, or upgraded, to a more full-featured model.  But Tyler says he still cooks the 1950 way:


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.
I'm not sure I know what it means to cook in a 1950s-era kitchen.  I've lived in a kitchen that was installed in 1953, and still had the original refrigerator.  But was it really a 1953 kitchen?  Everything else had been repaired many times over, because neither appliances nor cabinetry often last for fifty years of hard use. 

For that matter, how should we define what a 1953 kitchen was?  Is it a kitchen with anything that had been invented by the time?  Or is it a kitchen with the things that an average income family could afford?  Surely it must matter not merely that something existed, but that it was cheap enough to become widespread?  

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?

How many of my readers eat canned seafood (other than tuna?)  In a mass market cookbook from the 1950s, the assumption is that when you're talking about shrimp, oysters, clams, or crab, you're talking about something that has been decanted from a metal tin.  And of course many other ingredients we now use commonly were not available even in cans to Americans in the 1950s.

And what was available was much more expensive.  "Food prepared in the home" consumes less than 10% of the average family budget; in 1950, that figure was almost 30%.  It shows in the cookbooks.  The Betty Crocker is full of economizing tips: ways to stretch ground beef by adding Wheaties; noodle and rice rings that artfully disguise the fact that there isn't much protein to go around; "one egg" cakes praised for being economical.  This was not a handout for welfare recipients; it was expected that the average housewife would be anxiously counting the cost of the eggs and milk used in her baked goods, and looking for ways to stretch out even cheap cuts of meat at the end of the month.  Now, I'm sure there are still people in this country who worry about the price of adding an extra egg to their cakes--but they are not the average, or even close to the average.  Cooking is both much better, and much easier for those who choose to do it, than it was when my kitchen was built.  And the dishwasher knocks twenty or thirty minutes off the time cost of that cooking--not a small improvement.

I haven't even mentioned one of the biggest improvements, which seems to have been overlooked because it isn't a "kitchen" appliance: home air conditioning.  Ever canned cherries in July with a broken air conditioner?  If you live south of Vermont, and you don't have an air conditioner, probably on those really hot summer days you decide not to cook--you go out, or you buy something pre-prepared from the supermarket, or (if you're in one of those non-1950s kitchens), you thaw something frozen in the microwave. The 1950s cook didn't usually have those choices; either they didn't exist, or she couldn't afford them.  No matter how hot it was, she had to go into the kitchen and fire up the stove even to produce "cold" items like potato salad, egg salad, or lemonade.  And of course many American women, like my grandmother, canned all summer, either to save money or because they preferred the quality of home canned.  We don't do this so much in part because women work, and in part because we no longer eat so much canned food--we have better alternatives.  But when we do choose to can, or do any summertime cooking, we do so in greater comfort than my grandmother could have imagined in 1953.

I'm not disputing that the improvements from 1900 to 1953 were large, probably even larger than those from 1953 to now.  I'm just saying that to know the magnitude of the change, we should specify what we mean.  Are we referring to the invention of labor-saving devices, or their diffusion? Major appliances or smaller gadgets? Do ingredients count? How about broader developments such as air conditioning? Shouldn't it count for something that our coffee no longer tastes disgusting?  

And most of all, I'm reminding myself how grateful we should be that none of us do truly cook in a 1954 kitchen.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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