Where's That Kitchen of the Future We Were Promised?

The kitchen of the future could flash-fry a buffalo in 40 seconds. (Photo: Frigidaire 1957 kitchen of the future)

We have been waiting for the “Kitchen of the future” longer than we have for jetpacks and hover boards. But like the House of Tomorrow, it has been described as “a vision perpetually deferred and one that tells us more about the preoccupations of the time than it does about the designs of the future.” And indeed, earlier on TreeHugger I looked at kitchens of the future through the lens of Rose Eveleth, who noted that kitchen design was stuck in a cultural time warp. (Just watch all these videos, you'll see that it's true.)

Around the corner, in the kitchen, our lovely future wife is making dinner. She always seems to be making dinner. Because no matter how far in the future we imagine, in the kitchen, it is always the 1950’s, it is always dinnertime, and it is always the wife’s job to make it.

In Fusion, Daniela Hernandez takes another look at why the kitchen of the future hasn't arrived yet. She notes that there's a lot of new technology (like the June toaster we've shown) that is smarter and interconnected. But she also gets what I think is the key point:

For the smart kitchen to ascend from tech meme to tech staple, the people trying to smarten up the kitchen will have to overcome not just technological barriers, but social ones.

When you look at all these wonderful videos from the '50s and '60s, you see what Eveleth was talking about — women, in the kitchen, running fancy new equipment that bakes cakes and cooks everything from scratch. But what has really changed in the way we cook is how little of it people are actually doing now; according to Roberto Ferdman in the Washington Post,

Between the mid-1960s and late 2000s, low-income households went from eating at home 95 percent of the time to only 72 percent of the time, middle-income households when from eating at home 92 percent of the time to 69 percent of the time, and high-income households went from eating at home 88 percent of the time to only 65 percent of the time.

In fact, Americans spend less time cooking than any other developed nation. The main change has been that women, who now work, are spending half as much time in the kitchen than they used to, while men are spending just a few minutes more than they used to.

All the smart kitchen tech has not gone into our kitchens, but into our supermarkets. Consultant Harry Balzer told Michael Pollan in 2009, quoted in the Washington Post:

“We’re all looking for someone else to cook for us. The next American cook is going to be the supermarket. Takeout from the supermarket, that’s the future. All we need now is the drive-through supermarket.”

Six years later, that's pretty much what has happened. You can go to almost any supermarket and right near the front there will be a big takeout area with dinner to go; you don’t even have to reheat it.

Back on Fusion, Daniela describes what she thinks a smart kitchen should be.

For the smart consumer kitchen to really take off, it needs to operate like our cheap smartphones. Our appliances, utensils and cooking ware need to make personalized suggestions, give us instructions on how to cook the ingredients we have, and anticipate our wants and needs — just like Google Now or Google Maps. The smart kitchen needs to provide a magical iPod-like experience that works right out of the box.

I'm not convinced. We already have the magical iPod experience. Apps like JustEat make it simple to hit a few buttons on your phone. And now, Uber Eats makes deals with restaurants to deliver a limited selection that's ready to go: “the food you want from the restaurants you love, faster than anyone else. Just open the app, find what you’re craving, and we’ll deliver it right to you.”

All the smart technology will be back there in the algorithms that figure out what you want, in the delivery infrastructure that gets it to you, and in commercial kitchens where they prepare the food.

As for the kitchen at home, it probably won’t be very smart at all. For most Americans it will be a big, double-wide fridge full of frozen food, pretty much as it is now. For the wealthy, it will be artisanal, with Wolf ranges, Global knives and Le Creuset pots, plus a giant monitor on the fridge door (that’s what was released at CES today) to watch the YouTube videos from the cooking shows — and all stuff that is used perhaps once a week, as cooking becomes a hobby instead of a daily habit.

That, unfortunately, is the kitchen of the future today.