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.

I call my Shun chef’s knife beautiful, but objectively, nothing about its form is particularly lovely. The blade has a strange, asymmetrical curve, a hint of the crooked leer that curls the lips of villains in old detective movies. It cuts brilliantly, of course, with formidable balance and heft. But my potato masher does a fine job of smashing tubers, yet I never tell people it’s pretty. So why lavish such praise on a knife? One reviewer even called it “sexy,” a flinch-worthy description if you dwell on it for even a nanosecond.

The obvious, embarrassing conclusion is that we foodies are snobs: the potato masher costs $10 at Target, while the knife costs $199 and comes with its own wooden display stand. Not that I purchased this knife to impress people (she said defensively); it was a wedding gift, like the other Shun knives my husband and I own. When we returned from the honeymoon, we had to tap Shun again, for a 22-slot knife block that could hold all our booty. We now have enough high-end cutlery to stock a small restaurant—and a sense of shame at how rarely we use any of it.

VIDEO: Megan McArdle shows how time-consuming baking was before modern appliances

I am hardly alone; almost everyone I know seems to have the KitchenAid mixers and Cuisinarts they got for their wedding still sitting in their boxes, to emerge at Thanksgiving, if ever. At least I use my pricey equipment: although my husband may be the world’s leading expert on frozen chicken tenders, we do eat something cooked from scratch more nights than not.

But I can’t hold a spatula to my grandmother, who cooked three meals a day from the time she married until her mid-80s, when macular degeneration destroyed her sight. She also canned her own fruit and made preserves, and served a homemade dessert at every lunch and dinner. She was renowned among friends and family as a top-notch cook; to this day, she is the only person I’ve ever met whose pie crust never failed. Yet she used the same set of slightly battered Revere Ware for as long as my mother can remember, and her elderly collection of kitchen tools looked as if they’d been inherited from someone who wasn’t very careful with her possessions.

When my grandmother was growing up in the 1920s, the average woman spent about 30 hours a week preparing food and cleaning up. By the 1950s, when she was raising her family, that number had fallen to about 20 hours a week. Now, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, women average just 5.5 hours—and those who are employed, like me, spend less than 4.4 hours a week. And that’s not because men are picking up the slack; they log a paltry 15 minutes a day doing kitchen work. One market-research firm, the NPD Group, says that even in the 1980s, 72 percent of meals eaten at home involved an entrée cooked from scratch; now just 59 percent of them do, and the average number of food items used per meal has decreased from 4.4 to 3.5. That’s when we’re home at all: by 1995, we consumed more than a quarter of all meals and snacks outside the home, up from 16 percent two decades earlier.

So we have something of a mystery. Just when our labor in the kitchen has fallen, we have seen the rise of the gourmet kitchen: the high-end retailers like Williams-Sonoma … the Sub-Zero refrigerators … the $10,000 Viking stoves … the $250 Breville toaster ovens … the Japanese knives with their own display stands. Why are we spending so much money on a place where we spend so little time?

Jack Schwefel, the CEO of Sur La Table, talks about “the romance” of the high-end kitchen gadgets he sells. Take something like a Margaritaville Frozen Concoction Maker, which has “550 watts of shaving and blending power” and four preset frozen-drink settings and, according to Sur La Table’s Web site, was featured in the March 25, 2009, episode of South Park. (Stan tries to return it to the company but can’t because it’s on a payment plan and he can’t find out who owns the debt.) It retails for $349.95.

Why pay $349.95 for what is essentially a souped-up blender? Customers “picture themselves outside by the pool, surrounded by 20 of their friends,” says Schwefel. “There’s always been a lot of gimmick to the gadget world, and you’re starting to see this proliferation of specialty gadgets.” Each of those gadgets comes with a vision of yourself doing something warm and inviting: baking bread, rolling your own pasta, slow-cooking a pot roast.

The kitchen was not always such a romantic place. At the turn of the 20th century, it was basically just another room, except with a stove in it. And not a very pleasant room: as Steven Gdula says in his book The Warmest Room in the House,

Kitchens were as close an approximation to hell on earth as one could find. They were hot, dirty, smelly, dangerous places, and the work done there seemed interminable.

In wealthy homes, large staffs labored there all day; in working-class homes, the central table served as food-prep site, dining area, and work surface for all manner of household jobs.

Domestic scientists and designers strove to rationalize our cookery, standardizing both recipes and the places where we prepared them. In the 1920s, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, one of the first female Austrian architects, was commissioned to design the kitchen areas in one of the first of the massive technocratic housing projects that came to characterize urban development in the 20th century. Asked by the city of Frankfurt to invent a modern kitchen in an era when electricity and gas lines were just becoming common, she did something that seems very strange to modern foodie sensibilities: she shrank it. Elsewhere, time-and-motion experts scrutinized the housewife, filming her in action and even strapping a bellows-like apparatus to her back so as to measure her breathing and see how hard she was working.

Under the influence of such domestic designers, kitchens for the masses were stripped down to a special-purpose room dedicated to food storage and preparation, hygienically separated from the parts of the house where people worked, ate, and relaxed. The table was removed in favor of built-in storage and work areas. Over time, such developments led to the “fitted” kitchen that we know today, with its fixed cupboards and 36-inch counters, its “triangle” of work areas for preparation, cooking, and cleanup.

An original Frankfurt Kitchen was recently on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, part of a kitchen-design exhibit called Counter Space. The faint outlines of the modern galley kitchen are visible in its form: fixed counters and cupboards, sink and stove. But it’s tiny by modern standards, with almost no storage or workspace, or even really room for more than one person. And although it has that clean, industrial Bauhaus aesthetic, it also has that same impersonal quality. The Frankfurt Kitchen is not remotely personal or ornamental. It is a highly functional work area. It is not a place where people wander in to admire your knives.

Eventually, this streamlined, ultrafunctional vision was the victim of its own success. Electric and gas stoves, and then refrigerators and dishwashers, slashed the amount of time that women needed to spend feeding their families, especially after reliable home cold storage brought about a revolution in processed and frozen foods that could be prepared in minutes. Almost as soon as they acquired these fancy new labor-saving kitchens, women did the natural thing: they started leaving them. By the new millennium, more than three-quarters of women ages 25 to 54 were in the workforce; in 1950, that proportion was closer to one-third.

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.