We’re spending more than ever on our gourmet kitchens and high-end appliances, yet we’re spending less and less time in the kitchen. Megan McArdle explains that we spend more than ever on our kitchen because cooking has moved from a job to a leisure activity. That transition has not only changed the way we see the kitchen but how we spend our money.
When my grandmother was growing up in the 1920s, the average woman spent about 30 hours a week preparing food and cleaning up. By the 1950s, when she was raising her family, that number had fallen to about 20 hours a week. Now, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, women average just 5.5 hours—and those who are employed, like me, spend less than 4.4 hours a week. And that’s not because men are picking up the slack; they log a paltry 15 minutes a day doing kitchen work. One market-research firm, the NPD Group, says that even in the 1980s, 72 percent of meals eaten at home involved an entrée cooked from scratch; now just 59 percent of them do, and the average number of food items used per meal has decreased from 4.4 to 3.5. That’s when we’re home at all: by 1995, we consumed more than a quarter of all meals and snacks outside the home, up from 16 percent two decades earlier.
So we have something of a mystery. Just when our labor in the kitchen has fallen, we have seen the rise of the gourmet kitchen: the high-end retailers like Williams-Sonoma … the Sub-Zero refrigerators … the $10,000 Viking stoves … the $250 Breville toaster ovens … the Japanese knives with their own display stands. Why are we spending so much money on a place where we spend so little time?
When we’re spending on leisure rather than drudgery, we think about our purchases very differently. Jobs are about cost-benefit analysis, which is why no one buys ultra-premium paper clips for their home office—in fact, many people who cook for a living make fun of amateurs like me, with our profusion of specialty knives and high-end pans. Leisure is as much about our pleasant fantasies as it is about what we’re actually doing. If you see cooking as an often boring part of your daily work, you’ll buy the pots you need to finish the job, and then stop. But if it’s part of a voyage of personal “rediscovery,” you’ll never stop finding new side trips to take—and everyone who’s been on a nice vacation knows the guilty pleasure of spending a little more than you should.