The Pursuit of the Perfect Kitchen According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than half of home renovations undertake involve kitchen makeovers. Americans spend an average of $42,000 on a kitchen upgrade. But to what end?
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The Pursuit of the Perfect Kitchen

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The Pursuit of the Perfect Kitchen

The Pursuit of the Perfect Kitchen

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According to the U.S. census bureau, more than half the renovations homeowners undertake involve kitchen makeovers. And realtors and appraisers say a new kitchen adds more value to a home than any other project.

We add granite countertops, sub-zero refrigerators, high-end professional stoves, islands with an additional cooktop and sink. And let's not forget the gadgets: the cappuccino machine, the industrial-strength juicer. But to what end? Are we worthy of our kitchens?

Christine Rosen is senior editor of the New Atlantis. She posed that question in the latest issue of the journal. If you recently had a kitchen makeover, what did you change? Are you spending more time in your new kitchen, or are you still grabbing takeout most nights of the week?

Give us a call, 800-989-8255, or zap us an email,

Christine Rosen is with us here in Studio 3-A, and welcome to the program. Nice to have you back, in fact.

Ms. CHRISTINE ROSEN (Senior Editor, New Atlantis Journal): Hi. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: So, are we worthy of our kitchens?

Ms. ROSEN: I think the short answer is not yet, because, although they're beautiful, wonderful examples of technology and spending power that we have in this country, we're not actually using these machines and technologies for what they were intended to, which is namely, to cook meals for our families, and to bring families together within the home.

CONAN: You say there's a great disconnect between our domestic fantasies and our domestic realities.

Ms. ROSEN: That's right. I mean, if you, in fact listening to some of the guests you've had on the previous hour, you hear about how stressed people's lives are, how everyone's trying to pitch in and do as much as possible. Men and women, raising children, working fulltime. It's a big challenge.

However, we do still have this, it's not just a fantasy, it's also, I think, a deeply felt need for comfortable homes, and for the serenity of domestic space. What we're finding, though, it that it's much easier to buy the Viking stove that gives us the fantasy that that's what we'll have when we have the stove, then it is to actually try to achieve it in reality. Because in reality, it takes time to do that.

CONAN: And in reality, you say, most people, according to your surveys, don't only turn that stove on maybe once a week.

Mr. ROSEN: That's right. If you look at the way that we've been using our kitchens, particularly in the last 20 years, the decline of home-cooked meals, the decline of family sitting down together for dinners during the week, this is a precipitous decline, and it doesn't look like its going to be reversed anytime soon.

CONAN: Now you go through, sort of, the history of kitchen instrumentation and gadgetry. One of the fascinating things you say in this article is that in 1860, most, just about everybody, the kitchen was pre-industrial. Just a few tools--people prepared meals the way somebody a thousand years earlier would recognize that people prepared meals. In a hundred years, completely changed.

Ms. ROSEN: That's right. Another big change that's happened in just those short hundred years is that even what would now be considered middle-class families employed help; servants, human help that we've now replaced with technology. But with new technologies that will allow us to do amazing new things, come higher standards as well. So, you can't just make a nicely brewed cup of coffee on your stove, you've got to make a, you know, half-caf latte.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROSEN: So, these standards and our supposed needs and desires have risen at the same time that our technologies are trying to push us ever further in that direction.

CONAN: And interestingly, on the expenditures on these gadgets, obviously theses are better-off people, but, you quote David Brooks, who's writing about what you describe as some reverse snobbery, "Spending on conspicuous displays is evil," Brooks notes, "but it's egalitarian to spend money on parts of the house that would previously have been used by servants."

Ms. ROSEN: That's right. Brooks' book about the Bobos in Paradise did a wonderful job of skewering some of the pretensions of these technologies. And I think, though, that even if you look at middle-class Americans, and the broad swath of Americans who aren't in that upper one-percent income bracket, and can't afford that Aga stove or the Gaggenau oven...

CONAN; You describe stoves that, I've never heard of them.

Ms. ROSEN: Well, they're almost, they look like space ships, actually, and they cost nearly as much as one. But even if you go, I mean, I shop at Target. If you look up and down the aisles of the small appliances at Target, you will see a lot of mimicry of this idea of professional-grade appliances. You'll see a lot of, gourmet is an adjective that you see, even on a $19 blender. And it's intriguing, that didn't used to be the case. The effectiveness of the appliance used to be what was marketed. Now, the lifestyle it will bring you is what's emphasized.

CONAN: And you note that gourmet is a word that has suddenly transformed from a noun into an adjective.

Ms. ROSEN: That's right. A gourmet used to be a person who understood and appreciated fine wine and fine food. Now, gourmet will describe, you know, the hand mixer you might have kept in your drawer since Christmas.

CONAN: Or that little device you use to tighten up the top on the crème Brule.

Ms. ROSEN: That's right. The blowtorch.

CONAN: Gotta have one of those. The blowtorch, absolutely. The mini-blowtorch.

800-989--if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. You're going to need those last four numbers. Or send us an email at

Let's talk with David. David's calling us from Sacramento.

DAVID (Caller): Hi Neal, how are you doing?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

DAVID: I've just been listening to your last part of your, or the first part of your show, and it's interesting that we get into the kitchen now.

My wife and I, we both equally like to do some cooking. But I'm facing a point where she's looking to renovate the kitchen, and he's not happy with the size of the oven. My biggest hesitation with that is you get a contractor in here, and next thing you know, we're renovating the whole kitchen cabinets, and now we're renovating the countertops, and, I mean, we just start renovating the whole house, type of thing. So, we're still in the negotiation portion of just what we want to build.

CONAN: So, the problem being, if you get the Viking stove, suddenly, the rest of your kitchen isn't worthy of the stove, and then the kitchen's redone, and the hallway leading into the kitchen just looks terrible.

DAVID: Exactly. You know, and then we're, you know, and then it doesn't match the floor and the carpets, and...

CONAN: And, in the meantime, you guys are gonna spend the next six months in a hotel.

DAVID: Well, right, you know, and more importantly, the kitchen is a place to prepare meals. And, you know, we like to go out and enjoy life, versus sit around the house, and, you know, give our life to the house.

CONAN: And, Christine, that's one of the main points that you, I mean, kitchens are the heart and soul of houses.

Ms. ROSEN: That's right. I mean, if you look at the way, especially in the 19th century, when domesticity, particularly for women, was emphasized, it was talked about as the soul of a home, because this was the place where women were able to show their extreme skill, and their love for their family.

Now, of course, it would be unrealistic to expect women today to do that when they're working and trying to raise their kids and etcetera, but I would say to the caller, beware the slippery slope, because the idea that the perfect oven will allow you to make the perfect meal will very quickly lead to the idea that, in order to be worthy of this perfect oven, you will need all of these other appliances.

And if you consider the average American, most meals on most days are prepared in less than 30 minutes. That means they're almost always pre-packaged, prepared foods, or frozen foods that are thawed out. So, it's the microwave oven that seems to be getting the biggest workout in American homes these days.

CONAN: We're talking with Christine Rosen, senior editor at the New Atlantis Journal, about her article in the most recent issue of the journal, Are We Worthy of Our Kitchens?

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, on NPR News.

And let's talk now with Sharon. Sharon's calling us from Muncie, Indiana.

SHARON (Caller): Yes. This is Sharon.

CONAN: Yes Sharon, go ahead, Sharon. You're on the air.

SHARON: Well, we recently re-did our kitchen, and added on a little, to the tune of $20,000, which was an extreme extravagant for us. But I love it. I used my kitchen before, and I use it even more now, because I have enough counter space to spread out. I have an eye-level oven. Now, I didn't go for the super high-end appliances, but, you know, I went for eye-level and for nice, smooth electric cook tops, so I don't have the messes to clean up there. And I, you know, it's the best investment we ever made.

CONAN: So, entirely worth it from your point of view.

SHARON: Absolutely.

CONAN: Because you use it.

SHARON: Exactly. And yet, I know what you're saying. I know people who have these beautiful kitchens, and they say, you know, I love to look at it, but I don't use it.

CONAN: Sharon, thanks very much, and continue to have good, good cooking.

SHARON: I will. Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's turn now to Steve. Steve's calling also from Michigan.

STEVE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi Steve. You're on the air.

STEVE: Yeah, we have a, we actually bought our house because it has an Aga stove in it. And, you know, we love it. That's what sold us the house. It becomes the center of the house, almost like a fireplace. My father-in-law comes in and lifts the lid, you know, and warms his hands by the burners. It's always on.

Ms. ROSEN: Well, the Aga stove is one of my particular favorites. He had to buy the house around the Aga, because once an Aga's installed, it's very difficult to move. You often have to call in structural engineers to place the Aga, because it's so heavy.

I would say people who buy Aga stoves, many of them actually do use them for cooking, but more people are buying into the idea that the Aga stove brings, which is a hearth and a home. But many people aren't cooking on them.

The Aga is a challenge to learn to cook on, actually. It's a series of differently heated ovens, and you have to learn how to shift food from one oven to the other. It's a whole lifestyle. In fact, there's an Aga Lifestyle Magazine that owners of the Aga stoves can read. People have cooking parties around their Agas. It's a cult appliance in many ways.

I highly approve of the caller's desire to warm his hands over it, and it does really have a beautiful and warm, homey feel. The question is, many people are buying these as status symbols rather than to use as ovens.

CONAN: You write about an even more rarified model, brand rather, called the Bonnet, I assume it's called. Custom made, by hand, in France, in solid cast- iron with an installer flown over to assemble it onsite. And it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And yes, there were s's on the ends of both of those words.

Ms. ROSEN: That's correct. It became famous, or infamous, depending on your opinion. I believe it's the French laundry out in Napa Valley, I believe they have one of these stoves. Thomas Keller, the famous chef there, uses one.

And, you know, there is this divide, now. It used to be if a celebrity chef, or a celebrity of some sort bought an appliance, it was just not within reach of most Americans. This is certainly not within reach of most Americans, but it's desired by more and more Americans, and I think that's what's changing, is that we have this expectation that this is something we deserve. We deserve the $100,000 stove if indeed we want it. However, we don't have any obligation or need to actually use it once we buy it.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get Janelle in, very quickly. Just a couple of seconds Janelle.

JANELLE (Caller): Yes, my question is, why does my toaster have to have a cancel button?

(Sounbite of laughter)

Ms. ROSEN: (Laughing) Because you might change your mind.

JANELLE: I just thought (unintelligible) was good enough. I don't know.

CONAN: Then he'd have to eat raw toast.

JANELLE: I guess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JANELLE: Thank you.

CONAN: Janelle, thanks very much for the call.

And Christine Rosen, thanks for coming in today.

Ms. ROSEN: Thank you for bringing me on.

CONAN: Christine Rosen is the senior editor at the New Atlantis Journal. Her article in the most recent issue is called, Are We Worthy of Our Kitchens?

I'm Neal Conan, NPR News, in Washington.

(Soundbite of a woman singing)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN (Singing): Mama's cooking. Mama's cooking. My, my. Mama's cooking. Mama's cooking. Mama's cooking. My, my. Mama's cooking. Mama's cooking. Mama's cooking. Oh, my, my.

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