A Last Word on Kitchens

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I see that Thomas Levenson is on the warpath against my post on what constitutes a 1953 kitchen.  How can I say that 1953 kitchens didn't have stand mixers when the Kitchenaid was invented in 1919?  The blender not much later?  WHY DON'T I KNOW HOW TO USE THE INTERNETS!!!!!

It's certainly possible that I got something wrong in that post; I am of course not a historian of kitchens.  But neither is Mr. Levenson, and I can't plead guilty to the offenses I am charged of based on his evidence.  

Perhaps I was unclear that I was talking about things that the typical 1953 kitchen had, not the things that had been invented--the microwave oven had also been invented, in the late 1940s, but I think we can all agree that this was not a typical feature of kitchens of the era.  Drip coffee (the Chemex), stand mixers, blenders, microwaves, had all been invented, but they weren't widely diffused.  In context, I think this is obvious:

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.

For some reason, Levenson has snipped off the context.  Taking just the last sentence, he then launches into a diatribe about how wrong I am:


Stand mixers in the 1950s? Oh, you mean the standing mixer invented in 1908 by Herbert Johnson, sold to commercial bakers in 1915, and released for the home as the KitchenAid Food Preparer in...wait for it...1919? Sunbeam released its cheaper alternative in the '30s, and in 1954, (that kitchen of the 50s thing again) one could actually purchase a KitchenAid in a color other than white.

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Blenders? Same story. The blender was invented in 1922 first as a tool for soda counters, and the iconic Waring Blender hit the market in 1937. By 1954, one million had been sold. As a sidenote, the Vitamix Corporation introduced a competitor to the Waring machine, and in 1949 sold it with the aid of a thirty minute broadcast on a brand new medium: WEWS TV in Cleveland, in what is thought to be the first ever direct response ad.

You get the idea. In the list above, food processors and slow cookers are in fact inventions that have their roots in the sixties and their commercial release in the early 70s. Give McArdle that -- but the point to take away from this is that in a list of five statements of fact, McArdle gets two wrong unequivocally, is deceptive in a third case (there were no automatic drip coffeemakers, but automatic makers using other brewing methods were readily available) and right only in two cases. .400 may be fabulous in baseball. In journalism, it wouldn't even propel you to the Cape Cod League.

I'm sorry that Mr. Levenson thinks I was being deceptive, but I thought it was obvious why I was specifying drip coffeemakers:  at least for people from my generation, percolated coffee tastes horrible. I do not think of percolators as drip coffee equivalents, I think of them as something close to crime against humanity.  As for the rest, my understanding is that the stand mixer was not widely dispersed in American households until the early 1960s; the stand mixer invented in 1919 was commercial grade; the home versions appeared in the 1930s and sold well, but were somewhat derailed by the dearth of consumer production during World War II.   Of course, if anyone has data better than I was able to find, I am open to correction.


Some of this, however, may simply be an argument about what constitutes "common"; Sunbeam sold over a million mixers before World War II, but there were 31 million family households counted in the 1940 US census, and 38 million ten years later. The hand mixer didn't become available, as far as I know, until Sunbeam's handheld Mixmaster in 1952.  The blender, according to research on appliance diffusion, wasn't found in as many as 20% of US households until 1967 (it hit 50% three years later).  Again--are we looking at "typical" or "available"?  After all, we don't think of television as having been a feature of American life in 1949, even though some percentage of US households had one.  I lean towards requiring some amount of broad diffusion, but I can see the argument for the other side--indeed, that's what I was getting at in the post, that the definition of a "1950s kitchen" is tricky.

Then there's this, in which he supports my point while somehow arguing that this proves me wrong:

...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...

McArdle knows this how? It's a pretty bald declaration that would have come as a shock to a company like Lodge (founded 1896) or Wagner (founded 1891). And if you want to think about the availability of high-end cookware aimed at more regular folks, what about the company born of a trip to Paris in 1952, on which Chuck Williams first encountered "classic French cooking equipment like omelet pans and souffle molds whose quality I'd never seen in the U.S." Williams opened his first store in 1956 in the then very ordinary small-town farming community of Sonoma, California. Williams-Sonoma proved to have legs, I believe.

Lodge makes a very fine cast iron product, but unlike some of the die-hard fans, most people do not want to spend all their time using cast iron, because there are many things it isn't good for, and it's very heavy, which is why women abandoned it pretty quickly as new technologies became available.  In fairness, in this case, my assertion is based on personal, not academic research: in the cookbooks, advertisements, cinema and television of the time, the pans are simply much flimsier than what a Wal-Mart chef is now used to, a view that is confirmed when you come across relics from the era in thrift stores or Grandma's kitchen.  If Mr Levenson has contrary research, I will be pleased to retract my statement.  However, his efforts so far seem to bolster, rather than weaken, my case.

But Mr. Levenson and I may simply differ on how we read the documents of the era; he criticizes my reading of the Betty Crocker 1950 Picture Cookbook by noting that many cookbooks of the era were still showing the legacy of rationing.  This is certainly true of British cookbooks (rationing there ended in the mid-fifties), but it seems like a strange thing to say about American versions.  Here, rationing of meat and butter started in spring of 1942 and ended in the late fall of 1945, a shorter time than the distance between the end of rationing, and the publication of the Betty Crocker cookbook (which stayed the bestselling non-fiction book of its decade.) To me, cookbooks pre- and post- rationing look more like each other (in the ingredients they call for) than the recipes I've read from the war years, which are heavy on alternate foods like (unrationed) organ meats and "meat loaf" made of nuts, beans and grains.  But perhaps Mr. Levenson has a different experience, or some research that I haven't seen.

Mr. Levenson also seems to think that I am unaware of the invention of the refrigerated train cars which gave birth to the vast Chicago meat packing industry so memorably muckraked in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906).

And how about this:

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...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?

There's a lot wrong with this little passage, but here, let me just point out that McArdle is simply wrong in what she implies here about the history of the transport of refrigerated food. The earliest prototype of a mechanically cooled railroad car received a US patent in 1880. It certainly did take a long time for that to yield practical diesel-powered refrigeration on rails, but the use of natural ice for refrigerating specially designed rail cars -- "reefers" dates back to the mid 19th century. By the early 1880s, the Swift company were using ice-cooled cars to deliver 3,000 carcasses a week from the midwest to Boston. When ice production on industrial scale took off around the turn of the twentieth century, refrigeration on rails became so pervasive that 183,000 reefer cars were on US rails by 1930.
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All of which is to say that the delivery of fresh food to locations distant from production is something that has evolved over the last century and a half -- and is not simply, or even mostly, the result of falling trade barriers, air transport or containers.
Or, in other words, McArdle -- again -- knows not whereof she speaks.

I am afraid that Mr Levenson seems to have somehow confused "container shipping" with refrigerated boxcars.  While his gloss on their wikipedia entry is interesting, it's sort of beside the point.   I wasn't referring to our ability to ship produce in some sort of container, which predates the boxcar, and probably the invention of the box.  Nor was I referring to the invention of the refrigerated train car, which I took as a given (doesn't "flash frozen" produce also imply refrigerated transport to most people?)  Rather, I was referring to the revolutionary impact that containerization has had on global commerce.  

I assume that if someone who teaches science writing at MIT is so unfamiliar with the containerization revolution that he can mistake "container" for "refrigerated", then it must be much less common knowledge than I had thought.  So apologies to my readers for not explaining myself better. For those not familiar with containerization and its impact on global logistics, I hope you'll be able to take in the Smithsonian's fantastic exhibit on the topic.  The idea of packing everything you want to ship in a standard-size container designed to move smoothly between ships, trains and trucks is simple--I don't know any obvious reason that we had to wait so long to develop it.  

But the fact is that we didn't until the late 1950s, and the 1960s is when containerization really took off, transforming logistics and making possible a huge increase in global shipping traffic as costs fell and shipping times shrank.   As wikipedia says, "The impact on society of reefer containers is vast, allowing consumers all over the world to enjoy fresh produce at any time of year and experience previously unavailable fresh produce from many other parts of the world."  I don't think I have to explain why this trend was accelerated by faster, cheaper, more plentiful air cargo space, and falling trade barriers.  

When my mother was growing up, it was  theoretically possible to buy fresh strawberries or asparagus in December, shipped in a refrigerated boxcar from a hothouse or maybe California.  But I doubt the grocers in her small town would have stocked them, and if they did, my grandparents, who were solidly middle class but whose memories of the Great Depression died hard, would never have dreamed of buying them; they would have cost a fortune.  Now most people have access to a dozen kinds of lettuce every day of the year.

This is exactly the sort of question I was trying to get at with the original entry.  Containerization wasn't even one of those inventions that was only waiting for a lot of prior technology development, as far as I can tell; by 1956, it was just waiting for someone to think of it.  And then it took society several decades to really process the implications (the longshoreman's strike in California a few years back, and the panic over Dubai Ports World operating a US port, are both part of the transformations that are still going on, 55 years after Malcolm MacLean stuck that first load of truck trailers on a cargo ship bound for Texas.)  But the end result has been that fresh produce is amazingly more available than it was to my grandmother when she was my age.  

This has not exactly been a technological revolution, though things like computer networks have certainly aided it.  Should it count towards "kitchen innovation"?  A hard question.  The biggest change happened outside of the kitchen itself.  And unlike earlier innovations, it hasn't necessarily made us more productive, in the way that a refrigerator, by making storage easier, probably let a housewife spend less time shopping and cooking--in fact, judging by the number of "mix one can of mushroom soup into two cans of string beans" recipes I see in sixties cookbooks, maybe it's made us work harder.  On the other hand, it's a pretty large improvement in our quality of life.  Shouldn't that count?
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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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