Thursday, June 9, 2016

Are We Worthy of Our Kitchens?

One of the best recent advertising campaigns is for a new line of high-end washers and dryers made by General Electric. A supermodel and a dorky scientist collide on the street, falling unexpectedly in love, uniting brains and beauty, utility and aestheticism. The fruit of this union is the household appliance of the future — sophisticated, sleek, an electronic image of domestic bliss for our times. The perfect washer and dryer create the perfect family.

Given the great range and power of our contemporary technologies, it is hardly surprising that our expectations for modern machines are especially high at home. We seek movie-quality entertainment with our oversized, flat-panel, high-definition televisions. We seek business-quality communication by installing satellite-powered Internet access in our home offices. We seek restaurant-quality kitchens with our six-burner stovetops and cappuccino-making machines. We want the latest high-tech contrivance or convenience, hoping that it will make old jobs easier, or that it will fulfill new longings we never knew existed.

At the same time, some of the most remarkable household appliances are now so mundane that we rarely think of them as technologies at all. Consider — or reconsider — the washing machine. In many homes, it is relegated to the basement or some other hidden corner. It is used often but not given much attention by its owner unless it breaks. Most households still have reasonably priced models, almost always in white, so loud and unattractive that they are kept out of public view. Despite its humble status, however, the electric washing machine represents one of the more dramatic triumphs of technological ingenuity over physical labor. Before its invention in the twentieth century, women spent a full day or more every week performing the backbreaking task of laundering clothes. Hauling water (and the fuel to heat it), scrubbing, rinsing, wringing — one nineteenth-century American woman called laundry “the Herculean task which women all dread.” No one who had the choice would relinquish her washing machine and do laundry the old-fashioned way.

Today, technology aids us in performing even the simplest domestic tasks. We have vacuums, juicers, blenders, dishwashers, lawnmowers, leaf blowers, bread machines, coffee makers, ice cream makers, food processors, microwave ovens, and much more. Yet if our domestic machines are more advanced than ever, it is unclear by what standard we should judge their success.

Many people justify buying the latest household machine as a way to save time, but family life seems as rushed as ever. Judging by how Americans spend their money — on shelter magazines and kitchen gadgets and home furnishings — domesticity appears in robust health. Judging by the way Americans actually live, however, domesticity is in precipitous decline. Families sit together for meals much less often than they once did, and many homes exist in a state of near-chaos as working parents try to balance child-rearing, chores, long commutes, and work responsibilities. As Cheryl Mendelson, author of a recent book on housekeeping, observes, “Comfort and engagement at home have diminished to the point that even simple cleanliness and decent meals — let alone any deeper satisfactions — are no longer taken for granted in many middle-class homes.” Better domestic technologies have surely not produced a new age of domestic bliss. (...)

During Khrushchev’s and Nixon’s “kitchen debate,” Khrushchev needled Nixon by asking, “Don’t you have a machine that puts food into the mouth and pushes it down? Many things you’ve shown us are interesting but they are not needed in life. They have no useful purpose. They are merely gadgets.”

Khrushchev might have been describing the modern American wedding registry. A tour of a typical registry reveals an extraordinary level of acquisitiveness for odd or luxuriously impractical machines: espresso makers costing thousands of dollars, exotic waffle irons, “professional-quality” pasta makers and even tiny blowtorches that allow budding dessert chefs to brown a perfect crème brûlée. The Williams-Sonoma kitchen company reportedly sells a $900 machine dedicated solely to the making of panini. Today’s in-the-know amateur cooks covet the Thermomix, a combination of mixer, blender, food processor, and miniature stove, unfortunately not available in stores. Purchasing one, as one New York Times food writer found, is akin to attending a series of bizarre, cult-like Tupperware parties.

Even practical technologies have become extremely fussy — and extremely expensive — in their modern incarnations. For $460, you can buy a vacuum that attaches to your waist with a padded belt for ease of carrying and features a HEPA filtration system. “With the Euroclean Hip Vac,” the product summary notes, “you not only vacuum more efficiently, you clean more effectively with the hospital-grade power of HEPA filtration to eliminate 99.99% of particles 0.3 microns and larger.” This expensive, hospital-grade technology is advertised in a catalogue, “Gaiam Harmony,” whose motto is “Simple choices make a difference.”

Unsurprisingly, much of our desire for domestic technology is focused on the kitchen, and high-end kitchen appliances are one of the most sought-after features in a home. The Market Forecaster report from Kitchen and Bath Business projected that Americans would spend $68.3 billion in 2005 to remodel their kitchens, and that “high-end [remodeling] jobs — those priced at $15,000 or more — are expected to increase almost 6 percent from 2004.” Scanning the luxury home and apartment listings in any urban newspaper, one finds a familiar litany of highlighted features: In Boston, for example, a “gourmet kitchen with granite countertops, Sub-Zero and Gaggenau appliances,” and in New York, “Sub-Zero refrigerators, Gaggenau appliances, granite countertops in the gourmet kitchen.” Similarly, the popular website lists the brands of appliances considered desirable by design-conscious homeowners: Viking, Miele, Bosch, Wolf, Sub-Zero. A “coffee system” by Miele featured on the site — the price coyly “withheld by manufacturer” — likely costs more than a basic refrigerator and resembles a small spaceport.

One professional chef who occasionally cooks private dinners for wealthy patrons recently told the New York Times about the “spectacularly well-equipped kitchens I have seen, literally breathtaking. They’ve got these great big Viking or Garland or Aga stoves, gorgeous stone countertops ... multiple dishwashers, sometimes two, even three Sub-Zero refrigerators.... I walk into these kitchens and I just swoon.” This object love seems especially keen for those who seek the ultimate in modern domestic technology: “professional-grade” or “gourmet” appliances. Indeed, the word “gourmet” is now more frequently used as an adjective than a noun — to describe things in the home rather than the kind of person who might live there. Gourmet once meant a person who knew about and appreciated fine food and drink. Today gourmet is more likely to describe a state-of-the-art blender.

by Christine Rosen, The New Atlantis | Read more:
Image: Shutterstock