Okay, I admit it. I sneak glances at porn. Kitchen porn. In the anonymity of the grocery line, I let my eyes wander to the magazine racks. I reach out, feign interest in Glamour or The National Enquirer (as a science fiction writer, I really ought to keep up on the latest news about aliens), but then choose a slick lifestyle magazine: Sunset, or Saveur — even an oldie like Better Homes and Gardens will do, or the latest from brand name gurus like Martha Stewart or Rachael Ray. I hunger not for the recipes, but for the kitchen photo spreads: the acres of counter space, the multiple pantries, the butcher block, an ample island where friends can sit and chat while you cook, skylit high ceilings, double sinks with mosaic backsplash tiles, glass doors opening onto serene patios lush with greenery. And the gadgets: the stainless steel dishwasher (marketed as being “silent as a library”), the stove with extra burners and twin ovens, the easy access fridge with the freezer on the bottom, the power blender, food processor, retro stand mixer, the hanging rack flaunting its variegated pots and pans like a museum mobile by Miro. I swoon — and sometimes need to be nudged by the person behind me to snap to attention and move ahead in line. But I always put the magazine back. As an apartment renter with a kitchen sized for a submarine (no counter space, no dishwasher, a “junior” model fridge and stove), I can only dream.
I love to cook, but hate my kitchen. I try to channel inspiration from former New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman, whose tiny apartment kitchen caused a stir online when he posted photos of it on his blog. In his response column, he argues that what counts is the cook, not the kitchen, and he tells tales of cooks, such as the women of his grandmother’s generation, who made fabulous meals without recourse to all the technological conveniences we’ve come to think of as standard.
No matter the technology, cooking depends on a person’s ability to learn from experience; as Bittman says, “the equipment can make things more or less difficult, of course, but after all, cooking is cooking.”
But if cooking is still cooking in the present, will it also be so in the future? How will advances in technology change it? While cookbook authors like Bittman teach the craft, cooking is also a science, and therefore a ripe subject for science fiction. Although elemental technology, such as heat and cutting tools, improved quality of life for early humans, today we associate kitchen technology with high-end appliances that take the labor, but also the sensuous pleasure, out of cooking. “Nuking” something in a microwave is nearly instantaneous, but also, perhaps, destroys food on a cellular level. The next-horizon technology, food printers, while not as instantaneous as Star Trek’s replicators, matches convenience with environmental sustainability (nutrient pastes made from algae or — ick — insect parts!). The spectre of soylent green aside, food printer proponents envision family members, or military troops, freed from the obligation to eat the same thing as everyone else, and empowered by being able to print separate, individuated meals. This scenario, oddly, ignores the reality that food printers, like microwaves, will most likely enhance (or further degrade) the lives of solitary eaters: over-scheduled people too busy to sit down and share a meal with others.
In Murder in the Generative Kitchen, I try to imagine the cooking of the future — not as something done aboard space ships, or by humans colonizing far-off planets, but in the near future United States. McConnery Ellis’s generative kitchen is not only spacious, and equipped with gadgets galore, but programmed to adapt to its users: to tailor the food it prepares to the changing physiological profiles of the Ellises, and to allow a cook different levels of autonomy as it teaches techniques of gourmet food preparation. A dream kitchen, yes, but it’s also a stark contrast to the new normal: juror Julio Gonzalez’s unthinking acceptance of not even having a kitchen in his micro-apartment. His food printer, whose nutrient paste stream is included in the rent, makes him feel modern — and adult.
Would I want a generative kitchen? Well, I wouldn’t mind having its robo-barrista, an espresso machine that calibrates caffeine levels to exactly the kick a person needs. And, of course, I would love to have a kitchen as large, and as well-equipped, as McConnery Ellis’s kitchen. But a kitchen so adaptive that it may gain the agency to decide what’s best for me? Maybe not. Right now, I’d much rather just have the time to cook . . .
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