Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Kitchen of the Future; Long Pork and Logistics.

I have been thinking about the kitchen of the future a great deal lately—it keeps coming up. While I opened this blog with some thoughts on Pat Robertson’s anti-modernism, I thought I would spend the next week chewing on a few of the things I have been reading/hearing/seeing about the modern kitchen.

This past August a curious overlap in interests surrounding the challenges of development economics brought together the economist & New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (who

as it turns out is a lifelong science fiction fan), and the scifi author Charles Stross (who is one of the best Scottish post-singularity free-market socialists writing scfi right now).

There’s a video of their talk here, and a transcript here.

The scifi author and his Nobel Laureate fan (how cool must that be for Stross?) spent an hour or so talking. A subject the Krugman raises repeatedly is the kitchen of the future:

PK: If you walked into a kitchen from the 1950’s it would look a little pokey, but you’d know what to do. It wouldn’t be that difficult. If someone from the 1950’s walked into a kitchen from 1909 they’d be pretty unhappy – they might just be able to manage. If someone from 1909 went to one from 1859, you would actually be hopeless. The big change was really between 1840 and the 1920’s, in terms of what the physical nature of modern life is like. There’s been nothing like that since… if I walk into a kitchen in the year 2039 …

His question reminded me of Ridley Scott’s comment about the difficulty of envisioning future environments:

"One of the hardest sets to design was the kitchen. It’s easy to fantasize about Tyrell's giant neo-Egyptianesque boardroom, but imagining a bathroom and kitchen in those time, that's tricky. Never the less, fascinating. I love the problem."

Ridley Scott, Interviewed by Ted Greenwald

In reply, Stross mentions a scenario he was working on about medical grade cannibalism:

CS: …It just so happens that an awful lot of people in the biotech sector are working very hard to deliver machines that will generate bits of meat to order. Specifically, Long Pork. For the organ transplant business. One of the scenes in the next novel I’m working on set in about 15 years time will involve the ladies of leisure in Morningside a fairly posh part of Edinburgh who lunch together – they dine out on each other. From the point of view of a very, very disturbed police officer who’s trying to figure out what, if anything, to charge them with.

Krugman was clearly thrown by that answer (which is a funny moment), and makes an off color joke about Polynesians. Stross’ reply is smooth and diplomatic (“It will be poly-something.”), and his idea – that the future may give us denatured cannibalism deserves at least some serious consideration. After all, it isn’t necessary to invoke premodern cannibalism (Man Corn the perfect side for Long Pork) –Stross was being provocative, but he was pointing to a real trend in modern society, our ever-widening tastes.

Traditional society are loaded with food taboos, and the most damning insult one tribe could hurl at another tribe was often a comment on their neighbor's willingness to eat something thought to be disgusting.

Diego Rivera (every bit a Modern as well as a provocateur), made exactly this point when he claimed to have experimented with cannibalism in his autobiography:

Those of us who undertook the experiment pooled our money to purchase cadavers from the city morgue, choosing the bodies of persons who had died of violence—who had been freshly killed and were not diseased or senile. We lived on this cannibal diet for two months, and everyone’s health improved.

During the time of our experiment, I discovered that I liked to eat the legs and breasts of women, for as in other animals, these parts are delicacies. I savored young woman’s breaded ribs. Best of all, however, I relished women’s brain’s in vinaigrette.

I have never returned to the eating of human flesh, not out of a squeamishness, but because off the hostility with which society looks upon the practice. Yet is this hostility entirely rational? We know it is not. Cannibalism does not necessarily involve murder. And Human flesh is probably the most assimilable food available to man. Psychologically, its consumption might do much to liberate him from deep-rooted complexes—complexes which can explode with the first accidental spark.

I believe that when man evolves a civilization higher than the mechanized one he has now, the eating of human flesh will be sanctioned. For then man will have thrown off all his superstitions and irrational taboos.

But Krugman was thrown off the scent and doesn’t return to the question. Clearly what he had wanted to hear about was why our kitchens haven’t continued along the radical arc of physical change that started in the mid 19th century – a time when a kitchen was for the great majority people still just a place to build a fire—the arc Ridley Scott was struggling to extend.

If the modern palett is characterized by a desire for ever greater varieties and a falling away of traditional taboos, the greatest physical change to kitchens is an invisible innovation that caters to that modern desire.

Although kitchens don’t come up again, Stross and Krugman dance near an answer to the kitchen question when they get on the subject of the lag in productivity improvements seen after the electrification of factories and the introduction of information technologies:

PK: It turns out that all this unglamorous stuff like inventory management, basically knowing what exactly is left on the shelves the moment it is checked out of the counter being able to plan your whole system for something big box stores brought in and actually you can see that’s where the GDP growth …

CS: Logistics is vastly underrated. It’s invisible.

While the appliances in the modern kitchen haven’t continued to change radically enough to confuse a time skipping house wife/husband from the 1950s. I imagine that if my paternal grandmother (my maternal grandmother would have just sussed out the olive oil and made lamb) were transported from her 1950s kitchen to my sister’s kitchen (there is never any food in my kitchen, so it’s a bad example) she would be slack jawed by the contents of the cabinets and refrigerator.

The variety of exotic packages, not to mention their contents, but also white asparagus, humus, ostrich meat and flats of dried seaweed would have totally befuddled her. She would also be unprepared for the open plan of the kitchen. That it is the center of the families social life - not a closed off private space like a bathroom.

I think she would be surprised by how active my brother-in-law is in the kitchen. That he cooks and cleans would be extraordinary to her even if the sink still looked pretty familiar.

Fretting about mono-culture is pretty standard at the moment—and righteous—but consider that when my father was a boy in Buffalo NY ethnic food was spaghetti sauce made with catsup - go back further and tomatoes were used by Europeans as a decorative plantings.

While Columbus brought tomato seed back from his first voyage, until the 17th century they were believed to be poisonous.

Further back then that and there is no modern world, and diets were pretty grim. I expect if anyone of us were to skip ahead fifty years we would be surprised by what was on the menu. Cuban sandwich might be a whole different animal by then.


  1. i expected to see mention of r.a. heinlein's stranger in a strange land. good amount of long pork eating in that world.

  2. The one thing that always gets me when futurists get in the kitchen is that its exceeding obvious that none of them cook or for that matter watch Food Network. I've seen computerized this and smart that. I don't think anybody's even heard of an immersion circulator, which is probably going to be the next big thing in home cooking appliances. Imagine a crock pot that churn out gourmet meals. You literally just seal ingredients in a plastic pouch (like those vacuum sealers that don't actually do anything but already sell like hotcakes) set your water temp, put them in and forget about them. It's simple enough to make stew yet complex enough for Thomas Keller and Feran Adria.