Business May 2011

The Joy of Not Cooking

High-end retailers are counting on us to spend more money on our kitchens— even as we spend less time in them.

Yet the importance of the kitchen didn’t diminish just because we spent less time there. Rather, its social function changed. In Sixpence in Her Shoe, a 1960 tribute to the housewife, the poet Phyllis McGinley was already identifying a growing phenomenon that she called the “anticook”: the person who wanted “a parlor for her friends to envy, not a working kitchen. Nothing was meant for use.” The counters and floor have since been upgraded even further, from Formica and linoleum to granite and tile, and the pastel wall oven has in many cases been incorporated into a range worthy of a restaurant. All the while, the kitchen has grown massively—between 1974 and 2005, the area of the average new kitchen nearly doubled, to almost 300 square feet, accommodating the proliferating kitchenware popularized by celebrity chefs and specialty retailers like Sur La Table. The new space has allowed the banished kitchen table to return from exile, and hygienic remove has given way to open floor plans—perhaps because so few of us worry about any of that dirty, smelly cooking. Like many such trends, this one is most pronounced at the top of the income distribution: Schwefel of Sur La Table describes walking into the home of a friend with a brand-new Viking range—in which she was storing her sweaters. The anticook still thrives.

And yet, so does Sur La Table, whose typical customer Schwefel describes as the sort of perfectionist gastronome who wants to choose from 15 kinds of whisk. Since Schwefel joined the firm five years ago, the number of stores has grown from 49 to 83—despite the worst economy since the Great Depression. Indeed, he says that the recession has actually helped his sales a bit, because people are eating out less. According to NPD, nationwide small-appliance sales are back above pre-recession levels, even as other home electrics have stagnated, and consumer electronics like televisions and laptops actually saw their 2010 holiday sales fall 5 percent from a year earlier.

Schwefel seems right about certain trends’ being driven in part by people eating more meals at home. According to Mintel, another market-research firm, 60 percent of restaurant-goers say that the recession has changed how their family spends money, and one-quarter plan to cut back their restaurant spending in 2011. But this can’t explain the decades of movement toward higher-end kitchens and kitchen equipment.

Perhaps we’re spending so much on our kitchens precisely because we’re using them less. When women left the kitchen, they began earning their own money—and the spending authority that comes with it. Since 1990, while the inflation-adjusted income of traditional single-earner couples has barely risen, the income of dual-earner couples has risen 16 percent. Schwefel says, “The core of my business is that 40- or 50-something woman who has more time than she did 10 years ago and is rediscovering kitchens.”

In other words, cooking is increasingly a leisure activity, especially at the high end of the market. My grandmother loved cooking, but it was still essentially a job: she cooked well because she wanted her family to eat well. For women today, cooking from scratch is an option—something you do when you are not hard-pressed by the demands of children and careers. Schwefel sees an increasing bifurcation between the markets for everyday equipment and for leisure cookware: the stainless-steel sauteuse for a quick weeknight stir-fry; the ebelskiver pans, and braisers, and jumbo chef’s knives for the weekends, when there’s time to use them. The split is even more striking in our recipes. The best-selling cookbooks are aspirational fare, like Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Yet the No. 1 cooking magazine is Taste of Home, which relies heavily on mixes and processed foods, and offers speed and convenience rather than lifestyle fulfillment.

Clearly Sur La Table’s customers are looking for a kind of romance, even in the cooking classes the store offers—one of the most popular is “Date Night.” As the success of co-ed cooking classes suggests, we can’t blame all of our higher spending on newly liberated women. The past decade or so has seen what Helen Rosner, the online editor for Saveur, calls “the dudification of cooking,” and research suggests that men, even more than women, experience cooking as a leisure pursuit. Whereas women may be inspired by Martha Stewart’s beribboned exercises in obsessive compulsion or the haute hominess of Julia Child, male celebrity chefs are showier; they spice, dice, and flame their creations until cooking—and eating—turns into a display of physical bravery. As Rosner puts it, dude cookery is all “fire, blood, and knives.” Unsurprisingly, men’s kitchen purchases tend to be different from women’s. When I asked Schwefel what his male customers favor, he immediately said “Knives,” calling them the “golf clubs” of cooks. Grilling equipment also gets pricier and more complicated every year—not just the $10,000 gas flame-palaces, but all the specialty racks and safety gear.

This money seems to be a new expenditure, rather than a shift in household spending; the only category Schwefel really sees falling is cookbooks, which Amazon dominates. Though women may have started the spending, and may still be driving most of it, in many households the penchant for high-end equipment is very much a folie à deux. Schwefel says the main limitation on his customers’ purchases is not the expense, but simply a lack of space for all the goodies they’d like to own.

When we’re spending on leisure rather than drudgery, we think about our purchases very differently. Jobs are about cost-benefit analysis, which is why no one buys ultra-premium paper clips for their home office—in fact, many people who cook for a living make fun of amateurs like me, with our profusion of specialty knives and high-end pans. Leisure is as much about our pleasant fantasies as it is about what we’re actually doing. If you see cooking as an often boring part of your daily work, you’ll buy the pots you need to finish the job, and then stop. But if it’s part of a voyage of personal “rediscovery,” you’ll never stop finding new side trips to take—and everyone who’s been on a nice vacation knows the guilty pleasure of spending a little more than you should.

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Megan McArdle is The Atlantic's business and economics editor.

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