I have an extremely small kitchen. Purchasing anything that takes up counter space would be an aggressively anti-social act. Nonetheless, as the holidays approach, I find myself paging through the Williams-Sonoma catalogue with a lust akin to that of a 12-year-old boy who's discovered his uncle's dirty magazines. For $59.95, I could own the Imperia pasta machine, "the kind used in home kitchens throughout Italy." For $34.95, I can own a set of three "breading trays," which I'm sure are better than the bowls I already own. A mere $25 will buy me a specialty Spaetzle maker, which promises a world in which I can "swiftly make the tender morsels at home in any quantity." Any quantity! Take that, oh 12 square feet of counter space.
Of course, Williams-Sonoma is almost down-market compared to some kitchen fantasies. A 36-inch Viking "professional grade" gas range will set you back over $5,000. Several Zojirushi rice cookers available here in the U.S. cost over $250, and rumor has it that there's a Toshiba model - requiring importation from Japan - priced at a cool 100,000 yen. That's $883. I don't think I've eaten $883 worth of rice in my entire life.
What makes these couture kitchen items so appealing? I think my family's weekly menus hint at a reason. We ate at a restaurant last night. We ordered pizza the night before that. Monday night featured some pre-made entrees from Trader Joe's. Like many modern women, I rarely have to cook. So kitchen time becomes a choice, a matter of self-expression rather than drudgery. Which makes all the gadgets fun. That may not have been the first thing our feminist foremothers were fighting for, but it's a more important victory than most of us realize.
In our culture, certain images tend to be conjured up so frequently that they stick in the collective consciousness, whether they're true or not. One of these images is that of the 1950's or 1960's housewife spending her daytime hours tending to her brood. Like all iconic images, this isn't entirely true. Even in 1940, more than a quarter of women worked outside the home. But what's most fascinating is what women who weren't in the workforce did with their time in those days. In 1965, researchers from the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan asked a large cohort of Americans to keep diaries of how they spent each hour. It turns out that women who weren't in the workforce spent more than 37 hours a week on housework. That was their full-time job. By contrast, women at that time spent just 15.4 hours per week taking care of children as a primary or secondary activity.
In our era of modern appliances and microwave meals, we forget how labor-intensive cooking and cleaning for a family used to be. Dishwashers didn't really come standard in kitchens until the 1970's. Likewise, hanging clothes out on the clothesline is much more time-consuming than throwing them in the dryer.
Judith Treas, a professor at the University of California-Irvine who studies the gender division of labor, has found that when men earn more money, they spend it on a variety of things. Women use extra money to buy themselves time. So it's no surprise that the big labor-saving conveniences we now take for granted - prepared meals, Merry Maids, no-iron clothes - really took off as women entered the labor force in droves. It's unlikely that women who didn't run cleaning companies wanted to spend 37 hours a week doing housework in 1965 - and not, say, hanging out with their kids - but due to a lack of income they controlled, that's what they did. Now technology and outsourcing has removed big chunks of the drudgery for women with at least middle-class incomes. And as a result, they devote that time to things they value more. A 1998 time diary study found that modern women spend 19.6 hours per week taking care of children as a primary or secondary activity. That's more than an extra half an hour per day over 1965, even as women's labor force participation has soared.
Of course, parts of housework have always been fun. Sewing is an art. The difference is that these days, it can truly be about self-expression now that Chinese manufacturing has made children's clothes cheap enough that you don't really need to keep mending them or (heaven forbid) sewing them all yourself. The aroma of homemade tomato sauce bubbling on the stove is likewise heavenly. Why not add to the fantasy by making your own pasta with the $59.95 Imperia pasta machine on the weekend? It's a fantasy easily indulged. The stakes are low; if you fail, there's always a $1.99 box of the stuff from the grocery store, the phone number of a pizza place that delivers, or a reasonably cheap Italian restaurant a few miles away. You don't have to make the pasta in order to have pasta, and therein lies its charm.
That charm extends to all our shelter obsessions. Lawyer and professor Cheryl Mendelson has written a whole book (Laundry: The Home Comforts Book of Caring for Clothes and Linens) about the zen-like feeling that comes from sticking your face in a pile of freshly washed clothes. I suspect, though, that the zen-like feeling also comes from being able to afford a laundry service if you don't really want to wash and fold. Some commentators have pegged the popularity of Martha Stewart to a longing for an idyllic past era. Personally, I think it's just nice to see photos of pretty homemade pomander pyramids constructed from grapefruits, cloves and star anise when I know I can purchase any needed Christmas decorations from Pottery Barn.
When home dabbling is about self-expression, rather than necessity, it's a bit like choosing a nice piece of jewelry to wear. And hey, compared to nice jewelry, an $883 rice cooker even seems like a bargain.