No Stagnation in My Kitchen

Stagnation of innovation is often illustrated with kitchens. In 1996, Paul Krugman wrote, “I live in a house with a late-50s-vintage kitchen, never remodeled. The non-self-defrosting refrigerator, and the gas range with its open pilot lights . . .  it is still a pretty functional kitchen.” (Illustrating, at least, his lack of change.) Tyler Cowen said “if he were to introduce his grandmother to a modern American kitchen, it wouldn’t be all that earth-shattering for her.” David Brooks mentioned lack of innovation in many things, including “appliances”. Last week, the Economist said:

Take kitchens. In 1900 kitchens in even the poshest of households were primitive things. . . . Fast forward to 1970 and middle-class kitchens in America and Europe feature gas and electric hobs [= burners] and ovens, fridges, food processors, microwaves and dishwashers. Move forward another 40 years, though, and things scarcely change.

For a long time I wanted to go to the giant kitchen and housewares trade show in Chicago every summer, until this article convinced it would be the same old stuff with tiny variations.

In contrast, my kitchen has changed greatly in the last ten years. Here’s how:

1. Tea-brewing equipment. Soon after I started practicing the Shangri-La Diet (calories without smell), I started drinking lots of tea (smell without calories).

2. Electric tea kettle (heats water for tea better than microwave).

3. Kitchen scale (for tea and flaxseed). I discovered that flaxseed oil and, later, ground flaxseed improved my brain function and gums.

4. Noseclips. For the Shangri-La Diet.

5. Yogurt maker. I believe that fermented foods are essential for health.

6. Kombucha brewing tools (e.g., glass jars).

7. Spice grinder (for flax seed).

8. Soup cooker (for pork belly and miso soup). Eating lots of pork belly improved my sleep.

I would like to make more fermented foods. I hear that in South Korea I can get a machine that makes both natto and yogurt.

My kitchen changed because my ideas about health changed. My ideas about health changed because of my research.  I found a new way to lose weight. I had a new explanation of why we like foods with complex, sour, and unami flavors (so that we will eat more fermented food). Self-experimentation convinced me that I was seriously omega-3-deficient, thus the flaxseeds. I discovered that if I eat a lot of animal fat, I sleep better.

I believe kitchen stagnation reflects stagnation in our thinking about health. Every October, I point out that the Nobel Prize in Medicine has again been given to research that is so far useless.  “Molecular medicine has come nowhere close to matching the effects of improved sanitation,” says the Economist. Could mainstream health researchers be trapped by their desires to show off (no cheap equipment), to be respected (no “crazy ideas”), and to produce a steady stream of publications (no time to test implausible ideas)? Could having goals other than the truth (such as respectability) make it harder to find the truth? People who have written about stagnation in innovation do not seem to have considered these possibilities.

12 Responses to “No Stagnation in My Kitchen”

  1. Tony Says:

    What do you mean by soup cooker? Is this different than a blender or slow cooker? If so, I want one! I tried to google “soup cooker” with not much luck.

    Seth: Here is a picture. Like a slow cooker but more choice of temperature and duration.

  2. Rashad Says:

    Here is a different take on kitchen stagnation, framing it mostly as a wealth distribution issue. http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2013/01/10/myth_of_kitchen_stagnation.html

  3. Tom Says:

    Seth’s point makes more sense. None of his new equipment sounds very expensive. His kitchen changed because what he eats changed, not because he has more money.

    Professional chefs may buy immersion circulators, blow torches, French tops, pressure cookers, and blast chillers, but they need to be on the bleeding edge to prepare great tasting food extremely quickly. Most people would not, regardless of how much they made.

    Maybe the Romneys have a blast chiller and an immersion circulator, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

  4. dearieme Says:

    Everyone in Britain has 1 – 3. We also have 5 & 7. About “Kombucha brewing tools (e.g., glass jars)”: would our old wine-making equipment do?

    I too would like to know what a Soup cooker is.

    Seth: To make kombucha you need glass jars of the right size. Mine hold about a gallon.

  5. Paul N Says:

    An approximate American equivalent of the soup cooker is the VitaClay Chef

    It has an unglazed clay crock, can be set at various temperatures, from slow cooking pot roasts, to rice cooking, to yoghurt making. For pot roasts, it cooks faster than crock pots, and then decreases the temperature, too keep it warm but no overcooked. Also has programmable delayed start and a few other good features.

    I bought one of these for my partner for Xmas. Both she and I are long time crock pot users and we both agree this is better, and produces better tasting food, than any of our crockpots. We have used the yoghurt setting for making kefir, and also for sourdoughing bread.

    I am normally not a fan of countertop plug in appliances (other than the kettle), but this one has earned its place in my kitchen.

  6. Paul N Says:

    On the topic of kitchen innovation, I think the focus on “equipment” has led to a lack of innovation on “food” and even true “cooking”

    Here’s a great article from Mark Bittman of the NY Times on the topicYour kitchen is tiny – so what> ;

    “I asked my friend the chef Mario Batali what he thought about all this[people dispariging my small kitchen and basic equipment]. “Only bad cooks blame the equipment,” he said. “I can make almost every dish in my restaurants on four crummy electric burners with a regular oven — as can just about anyone else who cares to.”

    I couldn’t agree more. The focus on bigger kitchens, with more stuff, has moved the focus from the food itself. It has allowed people to own more gadgets and buy and store more varieties of prepared/processed foods in larger volumes (often resulting in spillage and waste) while the overall quality (and knowledge) of home food preparation has decreased.

  7. Jonathan Shewchuk Says:

    My favorite new kitchen technology is my sous vide cooker. The custardy eggs you get when you heat them at 148 F for an hour are superb. The way it tenderizes short ribs and chuck roast and anything with cartilege is amazing. And I like that I can leave a roast in it and take it out anywhere between 8 and 48 hours later, still cooked medium, so I don’t have to know in advance when I’ll be eating.

    Seth: Thanks for the suggestion.

  8. Carl Willat Says:

    I want a bread oven with steam injection.

  9. Paul N Says:

    @ Carl

    You can get almost the same result as a steam oven, with this no-knead method and a cast iron pot


    No Knead Bread.

    A google search of Mark Bittman and no-knead bread will come up with a few interesting variations on this technique, but the cast iron pot is always the “steam oven”

    I suppose a bread machine – or even a domestic range – could be made with a steam ” system” – but that sounds expensive for home kitchen equipment.

    And there’s nothing to break, leak or become obsolete with the pot.

  10. dearieme Says:

    “Seth: To make kombucha you need glass jars of the right size. Mine hold about a gallon.” Our wine making jars do too (though of course our gallon is bigger than yours). When the weather warms up enough that we can risk a trip into the attic, we’ll have to see whether we can find them.

  11. WR Says:

    Perhaps you realize, but stagnation ala TC is not about what you actually have, but what you could get. Nothing you list is new, and if anything it’s evidence of stagnation. Soup, Yogurt, Kombucha, Tea, etc—not new. Nor are the various apparati you cite new (except perhaps to you), with the one exception being your own nose clipping discovery. The whole point is that once you invest glass jars (“pick the low-hanging fruit”), they prove pretty hard to improve. And gallon glass jars have been around since the 1800′s.

    Maybe your point is that despite stagnation in the latter sense, there is still room for plenty of individual improvement in quality of life?

    Seth: What I wrote has a non-trivial point. My kitchen changed because my ideas about what to eat improved. That’s progress. Other people’s kitchens did not change at least partly because — my example makes clear — their ideas about what to eat did not change. In other words, underneath the technological stagnation noticed by TC and others lies scientific stagnation — in particular, stagnation in our understanding of health. I don’t think that has been obvious to people who write about stagnation and its causes. Sure, my new ideas led me to choose from existing stuff in new ways. But as the new ideas (e.g., about fermented food) spread, new technologies will come along that do a better job of using those ideas.

  12. Tina D. Says:

    Yes. I have limited space in my kitchen, so I need to pick and choose what I use, and it revolves around my diet. I like stews and soups and braises, so a slow cooker is essential, but not a panini maker because I don’t really like sandwiches. And, as my ideas about food changes – I am slowly becoming a paleo and fermented fan – I’m sure my equipment will change. My friends and I now have 6 gallon plastic buckets to make our sourkraut. I’ve a fan of only using what I need (although my closet tells me otherwise) but it’s really hard to do so when we live in a culture that rewards stuff for the sake of stuff.