TO keep you on-trend this Christmas, I’m here to warn you against rushing out to buy a tablet computer for someone you love, because they might prefer a baking tin.
Two chances, I hear you say. Everybody belonging to you, from about seven years of age upwards, wants a tablet. Even if they already have a tablet, they want a bigger and better tablet. Or a smaller, skinnier tablet.
I know. I know that’s what they may be saying to you, but it’s not the full truth of their deeper needs. The full truth is that they ache and yearn for a pressure cooker or a whisk. Or, if they’re seriously high- end in their aspirations for 2014, they ache and yearn for one of those miniature blow -torches that crisps up the sugar on the top of a crème brulee. Trust me on this.
Or, rather, trust the company that owns PC World and Curry’s, which has found, in the weeks up to this point, that sales of kitchen gadgets in their stores are knocking hell out of the sales of high-tech gadgets.
Even the lowly kettle is coming up on the inside track because people have decided that they want all their top-of-counter gadgets to match in terms of colour, and so are prepared to invest in doing away with a perfectly good kettle if it isn’t in just the right shade.
But it’s not just about getting the colour of the kettle right, according to Dixons. Their sales figures indicate a considerable shift in societal attitudes to the kitchen. As considerable a shift as happened decades ago.
Back in the days of our mothers and grandmothers, the kitchen (or scullery, as some were called), amounted to a small single cooker that was considered seriously posh if it had an eye-level grill. Vast improvements and extra space turned the kitchen into a pleasant room to inhabit and work in.
But then, things changed again, in the Celtic Tiger years, when the kitchen turned into a form of indoor sculpture, to be admired, respected, kept clean and left largely unused.
As long as you had the marble-topped island in the middle and the overhead yoke for hanging perfectly shined copper saucepans from, you were sound.
You didn’t ever have to cook in it; the comfort lay in knowing that you could cook in it if the longing came on you.
And if the longing didn’t come on you, even at Christmas, then you could go to Marks & Spencer and buy yourself a can of room- spray in order to stink up your kitchen with the appropriate scents of cinnamon and plum pudding. Kitchens, during the boom years, were a mass of pleasing contradictions. Like huge American fridge freezers humming softly to themselves while working hard to keep one bottle of milk and one bottle of white wine cold.
Like kitchen presses full of pots, pans, casseroles and George Foreman plug-in fat-removing grills, the outside wall of the same presses being covered in menus from Chinese, Indian, Thai and Vietnamese takeaways, alongside pizzeria listings.
Even dinner parties didn’t provoke some homeowners into actually cooking. They just ordered in from a more snobby take-away, like the Butler’s Pantry, or hired a chef who used the artwork called the kitchen, not for cooking, but for warming up something made a lot earlier.
That notion of the kitchen as a thing to be admired, rather than a workplace to be steamed and stunk up seems to be on the wane, with electrical kitchen machines ranging from coffee makers to juicers, from mixers to bread-makers all selling like (insert your own kitchen-related cliche here).
In Britain, sales of this gadgetry are believed to be 80% higher this year than last year. It’s not yet clear if the figures are quite as high in Ireland, but with chef Neven Maguire stating that more people are a) learning to cook properly, b) cooking at home, c) entertaining at home, the chances are that Ireland’s kitchen equipment sales will follow those in Britain pretty closely this Yuletide.
The question is why.
It’s easy to understand that, at different recent Christmases, half the world would want an iPod or an iPhone or an Xbox or a tablet. Each, in turn, was a brand new access point to new ways of doing new things or more speedy, exciting versions of old things. Being one of the first in the house, the classroom, the office or the street to own one of these gadgets provided immediate boost to the self-esteem: Hey, look at me, see how cool I am. Once each of them was charged up and you’d got the hang of how it worked, from then on, it was a case of instant and continued gratification.
But baking tins or Cuisinarts or coffee pod machines provide none of the above.
None is an access point to something cool. Not only does the possession of any one of them not offer major bragging rights, but you can’t carry them with you.
So people have to be dragged into your home to witness their wonders. And when it comes to gratification, you have to go out and buy ingredients and then spend an unconscionable length of time making stuff and cleaning up after making stuff before anything deliciously edible emerges.
Nor can the massive recent shift to kitchen equipment as the preferred Christmas or birthday gift be attributed to television programmes. The fact is that cookery has always been a staple of TV.
In more recent times Nigella, Jamie Oliver and that woman from the deep south of North America who seems stuck in antebellum notions, have all shifted a fair amount of kitchen gadgets, but none of them suddenly revolutionised the amount of kitchen equipment purchased in any one year. The British and Irish bake-off competitions have hardly had enough impact on the public mind to radically improve sales of kitchen products?
ONE possible explanation is that the cost of food has come home to people in a new way as a result of the recession, turning them against expensive processed food and towards home-cooked meals, although this slightly misses the point that, much as we revile processed food, one of its hidden benefits is that it eliminates waste.
With the exception of the plastic or tin dish in which it arrives, processed food is remarkably waste-free, meaning it’s easier to transport and you don’t have to put peelings, cores and leftover greenery into a brown wheelie. It may, as a result, be cheaper — or at least more cost-effective — than the home-made equivalent.
Whatever the reason, the shift is important. It’s a shift back to family, to the unique pleasure of taking time to cook for someone else and to the matching pleasure of being cooked for. It’s a re-learning of one of the earliest, most sensual human skills. Especially at Christmas, cooking is a skill that links us with the past and has a disproportionate present-day payoff, starting with the first sizzle and smell and ending with the sneak-eaten leftovers. So, think baking tin rather than tablet. Cheaper, too.
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