Sunday, August 13, 2017

Aficionado Culture Is Where Fun Goes to Die

From Bloomberg View, August 5:

From cooking to woodworking, rising levels of skill, effort and information intensivity have become a barrier to entry.
Are we making cooking too complex?

That’s the gist of a thought-provoking tweetstorm from economist Lyman Stone, which I’ve edited into a slightly easier-to-read paragraph form:
There are two things happening in U.S. food culture: more eating out AND a complexification of cooking. If you look at recipes from a generation or two ago, there are few ingredients, few steps. Simple, largely working-class type stuff.
A “good cook” today is expected to be an expert at analyzing the vast panoply of globalized ingredients available on the market today. We are told that good cooking requires specific ingredients, has numerous rules, has to have a salt-rubbed cast-iron skillet, etc
The normative hurdles we erect for what constitutes good cooking are enormous as we have gotten more choices. … But what you’re doing isn’t excellent household food prep but farm-league restauranteuring.
Some of this is welfare maximizing: Globalization creates new choices and scale efficiencies that make the whole food culture tastier! But I worry that the preference-forming mechanism in our food culture is changing too; are people really more satisfied with their food now?
I think that the answer is “Yes, they are.” As I’ve noted before, a once-common creature has nearly gone extinct in our society: the bad cook. My grandmother’s generation was full of them, people who understood that they had an obligation to feed their families, but lacked either the skill or the willingness to do it well. Now, I’m always surprised on those rare occasions when I sit down to the table of someone who’s a bad cook; most people who don’t like to cook eat out, or buy something they can heat up. And the rest of us don’t much miss the rock-hard biscuit; flaccid, overcooked vegetables; and flavorless gray meat which are so ubiquitous in the novels of yesteryear.

On the other hand, Lyman Stone also has a point. There’s a common pattern you see when technology renders some skill less necessary: it becomes a sort of luxury, and in the process, upskills. A hundred and fifty years ago, lots of people climbed onto the back of a horse every day. Outside of a few specialty professions like herding, the people who do so in 2017 are likely to be affluent, and engaged in some fairly complicated sport like show-jumping, barrel-racing, or dressage. The kinds of folks who just plopped themselves into the saddle and sat there like a sack are all off doing something else....MORE