Friday, March 13, 2009

Lists, Part 1

Gourmet recently compiled a list of the top "20 Tools and Technologies" that "have had the most lasting impact on home cooking." Leaving aside the inherent slipperiness of such lists (why not 21? Or 120? Why not include societal developments that have been as influential as technology? Etc.), I found the list intriguing, incomplete, fascinating, and deeply flawed.

First of all, the list, in the order presented:

1) Nonstick coating
2) Air conditioning
3) Mechanical kitchen timers
4) The chimney charcoal starter
5) Plastic wrap
6) Television
7) Vacuum sealers (for freezer storage)
8) The dishwasher
9) Silpats
10) The refrigerator
11) Overnight freight
12) The Internet
13) The food processor
14) The gas grill
15) Microplane
16) Blender
17) The slow cooker
18) Tupperware
19) The microwave oven
20) The Weber grill

Of course the list of things that have changed the way I personally cook would be quite different--I've only been cooking for a decade and a half or so, and I don't grill that often, so many of the items on the list have either been around "forever" or are irrelevant to my personal kitchen routine.

Even so, I have to say that many of the tools Gourmet chose as crucial, life-changing kitchen accessories are ... well, a little bizarre. Two kinds of grills? Blenders and food processors (the latter of which is easy to live without; the former, somewhat indispensible)? If plastic wrap makes the list, why not aluminum foil? How many people really own vacuum sealers? And aren't we supposed to be eating local, not ordering fresh out-of-season persimmons from Israel?

Others are things cooks can (and do) live without completely, in some cases for the better. I get that nonstick coating had a heyday a couple of decades ago; but anyone who's ever eaten food soiled with the unmistakable taste of melted Teflon (not to mention read the studies linking the stuff to cancer) tossed theirs in the garbage years ago. Similarly, Silpats freak me (and, judging from the comments on a recent post at Epicurious lots of other people) out--I just can't trust that silicone is safe to cook with, and the reassurances of companies like Dow "sure, those breast implants are safe" Corning don't exactly assuage me. More to the point, why do I need yet another set of bakeware? Regular old metal pans--the clanged-up ones that are already taking up more than their share of space beneath my oven--work just as well, without the worry.

And call me a hippie if you like, but I live perfectly well without a dishwasher, Microplane grater, and slow cooker--and, until recently, a microwave. I wish it was true that these innovations had (as the Vatican recently suggested about the washing machine) truly liberated home cooks, most of us women, from the worst parts of kitchen drudgery, but cooking, cleaning, and reheating leftovers still takes time and effort, whether you do it the newfangled or the old-fashioned way.

What do I like on this list? Refrigerators, for one, have been undeniably life-changing--without them, we'd all still be curing our own meat, confiting our own poultry, and getting our dairy in daily doses from the milkman. The Internet (and, before its time, television) has made it tremendously easy for avid amateur cooks to find recipes, tips, and inspiration--provided, of course, that they have the Internet access and the time. I can't imagine life without a digtal kitchen timer, of which the mechanical timer was the forebear. And Tupperware (and its imitators) is undeniably useful--it doesn't break, it's lightweight and portable, and its airtight seal keeps leftovers fresh.

A couple of things I would have added to the list, leaving aside my personal affinity for heat-resistant spatulas and citrus zesters: The can opener (made many foods, including soups and produce, staples year-round); chemical preservatives (made foods shelf-stable for much longer and enabled housewives to buy foods they had previously made from scratch); the electric freezer (allows people to store foods for many months) and the international highway and railway systems, which is still how most of our food gets shipped within the United States.

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