As the statistics from part 1 showed, cooking is the most time-consuming part of housework. While cookery can undoubtedly be enjoyable, but for a lot of people, a lot of the time, it’s a routine chore that they would prefer to avoid, or at least minimize the time spent on the boring parts.
Outsourcing the work
And avoid it we have, to some extent. While there might be something to the claims that domestic kitchen technology has stagnated, we’ve collectively found an alternative – get somebody else with a spiffy commercial kitchen to do the work for us. The American Restaurant Association stated in 2000 that, on average, American adults ate out about 4.4 times per week, up from about 3.8 times per week in 1981. However, this perhaps exaggerates the extent to which home cooking has declined, as the most popular meal eaten out is lunch, usually a less elaborate meal than dinner in the USA and Australia. Meat and Livestock Australia reports that 9 out of 10 dinners are cooked at home, and 7 of 10 are prepared from individual ingredients at home.
The second way we’ve reduced our cooking efforts is through the use of more elaborately transformed ingredients. While frozen meals and canned soup have been around forever, even fresh foods are transformed in one way or another – trimmed of fat, marinaded in a variety of ways, fresh vegetables peeled and packed to put in the microwave. Even something as basic as lettuce now comes pulled to bits, pre-washed and mixed together to save a minute or two.
Recent gadgets – diminishing returns?
It’s not entirely true that there haven’t been any labour-saving devices in the kitchen since the 1950s. The double-sided electric “George Foreman” grillers are heavily promoted for the lack of additional fat they add to food. However, they grill meat far more quickly than a single-sided griller, and obviate the need to monitor and flip the meat over. More recently, the invention of the Nespresso coffee maker has meant that coffee (by most reports, pretty good to excellent coffee) can be made with virtually no effort.
All that said, it does seem that we are approaching diminishing returns on what additional “dumb” kitchen gadgets can do for us. One last remaining frontier is cooking appliances that will stir food for us during the cooking process; the Jamie Oliver Homecooker is horrendously expensive for an electric saucepan with a built-in stirrer, but the concept seems pretty sound to me.
In considering my own cooking, it seems that a lot of time is actually spent moving things from place to place – fetching ingredients from the fridge, implements from cupboards, the results to cooking devices of one kind or another. Crockery makes its journey from the cupboard to the kitchen bench or table, to the sink and/or dishwasher, and then back to the cupboard. “Dumb” kitchen gadgets can’t help with this, either; in fact, for smaller jobs it’s often easier to do so with a simpler manual tool simply because of all the peripheral moving things about required.
As such, I reckon big improvements in domestic kitchen productivity are going to come from innovations that can substitute for humans moving things around, and we’ll look at that in the next part of this series.