One of the fascinating aspects of food technology is that the acts of cooking and eating have long been relatively easily readable socio-cultural markers in hierarchical societies. In contemporary British society an interesting facet of this is that the discourse on food, status and wealth has been closely intertwined with that on food, status and health.
When I was an anthropology student in the early 1980s one of my favourite books was about the cultural significance of culinary activities. In “Cooking, Cuisine and Class” Jack Goody introduced me to the idea that an analysis of food culture has the potential to light up our understanding of a whole society. The notion has stayed with me ever since and it came back to mind just the other day when I read in the Guardian about the quarter million pound “Grand Cuisine” kitchen, now available from Swedish company Electrolux for installation in your house (or houses, of course).
The general idea that the rich might want to fork out large amounts of money on fancy kitchens is not, in itself, noteworthy. And as far as food culture is concerned it wouldn’t be at all surprising if they wanted to spend a lot of money on very posh ingredients as well. After all, what you eat (and are seen to eat) is a socio-cultural marker we all manage on a daily basis (along with when you eat, where you eat and who you eat with). These things say a lot about us and wealthy/powerful individuals have been using food to express their social position for millennia.
So a swanky kitchen could pretty much be expected to be part of a contemporary conspicuous consumption strategy. But what makes the Electrolux kitchen interesting is that its opulence focuses on technological process, rather than luxury materials. While previous very expensive kitchens, like the “Colosseo Oro”, have majored on super high-end finishes (things like gold plated taps), the Electrolux Grand Cuisine Home Professional kitchen is all about the cooking technology. The key to being conspicuous with this piece of consumption is the physics on offer – the transformative processes that the ingredients (whatever they are) are going to go through. Among the technologies featured in the Electrolux kitchen are the water bath vacuum method (known as “sous-vide”) and blast chilling.
What these ways of cooking have in common is that they are both about the very precise (and some would say very ostentatious) control of temperature. In “sous vide” cooking, items like steaks or fish fillets are vacuum-sealed in plastic and then suspended in a laboratory-grade water bath at a chosen, constant temperature.
Almost inevitably, the manufacturers and marketeers involved in commercializing the technology claim that the system ‘locks in goodness’. I’ve often wondered what that actually means – having been fascinated since my earliest years by the notion that food actually contains morality. In fact I have never been able to hear the word “goodness” without thinking of Bovril (currently rather unfashionable, except in football stadia where it is an evergreen choice of fans seeking a half-time warm up… but I digress).
Anyway, all this brings me back to Jack Goody and his quest to understand “the meaning of a mode of cooking to the people concerned, since at one level its characterization involves ‘placing’ oneself in relation to others”.
The Electrolux “Grand Cuisine” kitchen is going to be bought by a small number of very wealthy people for whom the purchase will have meaning – not least associated with the modes of cooking they are adopting. Through buying the kitchen, they will be placing themselves in relation to others. One of the ways they’ll be doing this is by the exhibition of the ability to exercise very precise control in the kitchen as a way of maximizing “goodness”. The style of cuisine they will be aspiring to is sometimes called “molecular” and this kind of language contributes to the vague idea that your kitchen has something in common with the Large Hadron Collider. It’s not just a place for precision – it is a place for science itself.
A “sous-vide” recipe from the Electrolux publicity is described in Robert Booth’s Guardian article thus:-
“We do a short rib of beef cooked at 68 degrees centigrade for 72 hours,” explains Tom Aikens, the Michelin-starred chef who has been enlisted to promote the Electrolux kitchen at the kind of extravagant launch event more normally laid on by fashion labels or sports car companies. “Once cooked you pop it in the blast chiller so it sets, slice it into neat pieces, warm it in the sous-vide, then flash it in a hot oven. You could do that in this kitchen.”
Personally, I think that sounds like an awful lot of work for a rich person to take on, but there you go. And, of course, never say never in the world of conspicuous lifestyle control.
Continuously and sometimes blindly inspired by their devotion to a growing band of whacko patron saints like Ferran Adrià in Cataluña and our very own Heston Blumenthal, these people may well stop at nothing in their quest to demonstrate social superiority through culinary gadgetry.
But for the moment, I don’t think sociologists need worry on a personal basis. It’s still possible to exhibit membership of the respectable middle classes by simply displaying an espresso machine or one of those plug-in bread makers. I had thought that a gas bar-b-que in the patio would also do it – but my metropolitan friends tell me that this cultural error is simply a function of having spent “too long in Essex”. A concept I will ponder at some point over a quiet paper cup of Bovril.