Sultans of Ping: Will Austerity Change Our Thirst for Culinary Convenience?

Screen Shot 2013-11-19 at 13.06.51As a company headquartered in London, we at Mediolana have got used to being unusual in caring about what we eat: the dining culture of the UK’s capital is dominated by pre-packaged or cheap takeaway convenience foods, with high streets the length and breadth of the capital (though ironically not our very own Kensington High Street) dominated by fried chicken, sandwich, sushi and burger outlets – shrines to our desire for speed.

Of course, some are better than others – there is a big difference between gnawing down the pork hormone-infested chicken (‘chork’) proffered in the cheaper dives specialising in industrial meat products and tucking into a premium, pan-fried masterpiece of the kind available at Gourmet Burger Kitchen – but nevertheless, London is a city where food is outsourced and where many people’s idea of cooking stretches no further than the nearest microwave.

So it was with some shock that our Creative Director & CSO digested some recent figures on microwave ownership (.xls file) from Euromonitor: while a predictable 92.5% of households in the United Kingdom possess one of these devices, and this figure rises to 94.2% in Japan and a stunning 95.8% in the United States, not everyone has concluded that the microwave oven represents the pinnacle in culinary excellence. Only 67.5% of households in Singapore vaunt a microwave; under half of all Chilean residences have one; while nearly two-thirds of Brazilian households do not have a microwave. Most strikingly, nearly 94% of Turkish households are microwave-less.

Microwave ovens are ridiculously cheap devices, with a branded one available for around €50.00; therefore, they are not beyond the reach of any middle-income household virtually anywhere in the world. But these figures serve as a reminder that culture determines the uses of technology far more than we tend to realise.

Italy, a country which is not included in this set of statistics but which also has legendarily low microwave oven penetration levels (nearly 80% of Italian households do not possess this device), is presently experiencing a boom in home cooking – bestselling titles in Italian newsagents now include Cucina Economica (‘Economic Cooking’) and Cucina della Nonna (‘Grandmother’s Cooking’) – which would be unthinkable in London. But given that the Italian food resurgence is driven by economics, will even convenience-defined cultures be forced to change the habits of a lifetime?

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Sultans of Ping: Will Austerity Change Our Thirst for Culinary Convenience?

  1. Cooking for yourself only is a bit depressing, and I suspect that numbers of microwaves correlates with single-person households in a country. I can understand cooking, but I would quote Germaine Greer on the issue. When she was asked about why she doesn’t cook she replied that we don’t make our own clothes anymore. The God of progress always seems to win, and perhaps microwaves are part of a transition to go beyond cooking at home. Thinking of a more serious issues perhaps cooking as part of our culture is hindering women’s progress, and that makes it something that we need to actively get rid of now.

  2. Great blog post. You make some interesting observations.

    I think Suleman makes some sage points (as always!) I was watching a TV drama called ‘Mr Selfridge’ recently which is set about 100 years ago and the founder of Selfridges says to his staff that one day people will buy ready-made clothes and not make clothes themselves or have them tailor made. His staff are aghast at the thought and don’t seem to believe it will happen.

    Just like most people no longer see it worthwhile to make their own trousers or shirts (or build their own places of abode etc. etc.), in the more developed economies those in demanding employment and without free labour to call upon (a wife, a mother etc.) often don’t have the time or inclination to cook their own meals on a day-to-day basis and choose to outsource the task. While one could spend two hours to make an all-bells-and-whistles sandwich or burger (when one factors in the time to go to and from the market/supermarket, buy the bread and other ingredients, take everything out of their wrappers, make the sandwich/burger, clean up the kitchen afterwards etc.), many people would rather spend ten minutes on grabbing them from Subway or wherever tickles their fancy. If they are then spending the 1 hour and 50 minutes saved to do something productive (which admittedly many people don’t do), that can give them a huge advantage (depending on how one defines advantage of course) over people in economies such as Pakistan where half the population spends their time preparing yummy grub for the other half.

    Cooking is an activity that many people enjoy and most people would rather spend an hour in a kitchen trying to imitate Jamie Oliver rather than spending that time being couped up in an office manipulating Excel spreadsheets, but sadly that’s a luxury most people in the pricier parts of the world can’t afford when they’ve got enormous mortgages and other bills to pay.

    • Many thanks for your comment! I think that the beauty of the Italian model is that it shows that how we choose to make and consume our food really is a question of priorities; however, they also have an excellent, very intelligent food culture that makes this possible. Most of their dishes are fairly simple and rely on high quality, basic ingredients for their taste – they don’t involve hours of complex cooking. Increasingly, people may have to give this kind of model serious consideration because take-away food – even the cheap stuff – is much, much more expensive, both in terms of retail price and long-term hidden costs, than home-cooked or even supermarket food.

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