Sunday, May 30, 2010

Freedom from Kitchens

Gastronomy and Common Kitchens

By John Taylor; 2010 May 30, Azamat 12, 167 BE

I believe that homes should not have kitchens.

While I have been arguing that we need more exposure to agriculture in general, I would argue the reverse for exposure to food itself. We need to keep it out of view until it is on the table, ready to eat. Instead of every home having a kitchen and expecting that every homemaker prepare meals, why not offload the task to the neighbourhood level? What we call gluttony and sloth often are not personal failings as much as laxity in planning, a structural lack of order and discipline in the social environment.

Food preparation, then, should take place only in larger kitchens in separate locations, where economies of scale can reduce waste, lower costs and where materials are handled safely. A larger facility can train its workers in correct procedures and has the space to import, store and freeze foodstuffs in bulk. It has the financial wherewithal to purchase the latest equipment to, for example, protect against exposure to pollutants.

Waste, for example, is a major flaw in our present food distribution system. Studies conducted in Sweden found that a great proportion of the fresh vegetables purchased by households are not eaten. They rot in the refrigerator, even in well-organized homes run by competent homemakers. And not all homes are organized or diligently run. One study reported by Science News found that the pleasant, aromatic smell of a home cooked meal is actually a witch's brew of volatile organic compounds that can seriously compromise health. Ordinary home cooking can emit "easily inhaled pollutants that travel throughout a home and can linger for hours." (Science News, "Inhaling your food--and its cooking fuel," <>) While food preparation in a factory is more efficient in some ways, in other ways they are extremely wasteful, for example in packaging. Broad studies found that waste seems to be built into the very structure of the economy.

"There are reports of rich countries throwing out 25-30% of what is bought. Add in what never even makes it to the cupboard or the refrigerator, and the scale of the problem is considerably larger. [the study found that] ... the average American wastes 1,400 kilocalories a day. That amounts to 150 trillion kilocalories a year for the country as a whole -- about 40% of its food supply, up from 28% in 1974. Producing these wasted calories accounts for more than one-quarter of America's consumption of freshwater, and also uses about 300m barrels of oil a year. On top of that, a lot of methane (a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) emerges when all this food rots." (A hill of beans; America's food-waste problem is getting worse," The Economist, Nov 28, 2009, p. 94)

By segregating food preparation in a large community kitchen or restaurant we protect against dangerous practices, not least of which are raids by residents on the pantry or refrigerator. Having food too ready to hand is by all accounts unwise. Dietary research has found that a major cause of the recent epidemic of obesity is that it has become socially acceptable to eat and drink anywhere, anytime. Children from the earliest age are allowed to snack freely, to wolf down salty confections and slug sugar drinks, even at study sessions in school. We should be as tolerant of snacking as we are of bathroom functions performed in public -- and for the same reasons, since overindulging in food will kill just as surely as contact with excrement. Obesity may take longer than a communicable disease, but it kills just as dead. So, let us especially avoid anything that leads to overeating, or eating too quickly, especially buffets and smorgasbords, and tax salt and sugar to the hilt. We can use both social pressure and the design of our buildings to keep temptations to eat out of our faces most of the time.

In a hillside block the freedom to stuff oneself is severely limited. Large food preparation facilities prepare adequate meals and distribute them to households at mealtimes, and only at mealtimes. They can use pneumatic tubes and dumb waiters built into the superstructure of the building to deliver hot meals to dinner tables just at the time they are needed.


The abolition of home kitchens has proved to be the least popular of my ideas for hillside construction. For instance, in response to earlier versions of this essay, one reader recently wrote:

"I do not want to eat in a sort of cafeteria type surrounding.  I like to cook my own choice of food - and eat it when I want to eat it. I am saying this because I think it would be helpful for you to get some feedback."

The love of good food is both a basic human need and a fundamental part of happiness and the good life. I have described a negative aspect of the design, the lack of kitchens in hillside homes. The saying, "hunger is the best seasoning," describes the wisdom of this. The French call it gastronomy, eating small portions in a highly social setting. The hillside block building is designed from the ground up for gastronomy.

This comment brings up two issues that I should deal with in order.

First of all, choice. Although delivery takes place quickly and with great efficiency, this does not mean that everybody eats the same thing at every meal. With the aid of computers and "smart cards," residents can plan and personalize their own meals to their own tastes and medical requirements. Indeed the nutritional smart card will soon allow persons with restricted diets to eat anywhere, and to know exactly what they ate, when, and how much it cost. Such advances are happening without hillside housing, but they are slow in coming. As always they are not quickly adopted because standards must be agreed upon and interests other than those of the health of the public are liable to be accommodated first.

Second, participation in food preparation. The fact that cooking takes place off-site does not mean that residents are forbidden to cook. Many kitchens will be cooperatives that encourage work for meals bartering and other kinds of volunteer service arrangements.

The principle of conformity in essentials and variety in non-essentials would demand that there be variety not only in the types of food we eat but also in the specialization of the process of preparing it as well. Some households in natural areas may want to involve themselves both in cooking and in growing, as subsistence farmers and hunter gatherer aboriginals have always done.

There may be only a few households who choose a lifestyle with such radical non-specialization. However, it is in everybody's interest that they always continue, there every region have at least some available so that anybody who feels ready for a change can visit such a communal household. A vacation there would provide experience with a simpler, more traditional lifestyle that will reorient a city dweller's outlook on life.

All I can do here is to describe the default. The beauty of the cosmopolitan condition is that it will encourage a wide variety of lifestyles, diets and techniques for daily living. The hillside project just assures that most residents get enough, but not too much, nutrition at meal hours. Other aspects of the design of these buildings will encourage people to eat meals with others, together in their own households.

The social and spiritual utility of meals is not to be underestimated.

Mealtime is a chance for family or group members to share information, be they young or old. It rounds out the day and gives a family the chance to deal with problems and plan their lives. This offers further benefit for health, since the hubbub and distraction of group meals encourages slow eating, which allows the body to feel satiated before the stomach is full.

So far we have considered what the contribution of block kitchens is not.

A large hillside block building housing hundreds of residents and dozens of households would have many specialized kitchens competing with one another to send a meal to a resident or to cater an entire household's next meal. Within the bounds of proper nutrition, kitchens would be free to specialize. Some kitchens might choose an ethnic specialty. The Chinese are already adept at this. The level playing field of a hillside block would encourage other minority groups adapt their own cooking to compete with Chinese food. Some kitchens might be cooperatives with many residents participating; others might be corporations, family businesses or the showpiece of a school or ethnic neighbourhood.
Smaller or rural hillside blocks might have a single cooperative kitchen, perhaps one using large parabolic solar collectors or solar ovens in order to cook without using electric power. Residents who need more variation in their diets could supplement these dishes with ingredients, servings or whole meals sent in insulated containers from kitchens in larger hillside blocks. This would still be economical since the pneumatic tubes built into these buildings sends food very rapidly.

The hillside kitchen system not only offers variety of choice for the residents sitting at the top of the food chain, it also bolsters the farmers at the bottom. They have an assured local market for their harvest, and a ready demand for even exotic plants, fruits and meats. Since grower, cook and most of the dining clientele are all neighbours, there is bound to be great concern on everybody's part for safety, waste-avoidance, quality and promptitude.


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