Craft and ornament in baking

One of the arguments I’m making in my book has to do with the movement in American baking from simple and unadorned to fancy and visually enticing, and how that shift went hand in hand with the decline of craft and home cooking. I find it useful sometimes to try to graph and diagram things, even (especially?) when they’re not obviously quantitative, but when you’re writing cultural history, where “data” is largely fictional, you can easily oversimplify what you’re trying to visualize. What follows is a useful way to think about craft and ornament in baking, but take it with a grain of salt.

This particular visualization was inspired by Christopher Schwarz, a woodworker, writer, and teacher. In a recent blog post, Schwarz described a way of mapping furniture on a two-dimensional grid, where the x-axis was ornament and the y-axis was construction quality. That divides furniture into four rough types: Furniture from a box in the lower left, plain but solidly built “furniture of necessity” in the upper left, fancy well-made furniture of the rich in the upper right, and “furniture of the poseurs” at lower right. He made a good point that it’s more useful to think of furniture this way than simply calling anything without carving “Shaker.” And it’s a useful way to think about quality and pretense.

It struck me that Schwarz’ grid could just as easily describe fundamental styles of baking, and that mapping craft and ornament in baking would show visually a point I’ve been trying to make verbally. So I drew this grid:1

Craftsmanship and ornament in baking
Item Craftsmanship Ornament
grocery store birthday cake .26 .85
colonial gingerbread (homemade) .42 .2
colonial gingerbread (printed, gilt) .38 .9
Hannah Glasse’s “rich cake” .98 .65
really superb apple pie .93 .4
pretty good apple pie .6 .30
brownies (homemade) .3 .1
brownies (from a box) .08 .03
typical wedding cake .55 .95
brilliant wedding cake .95 .95
soft gingerbread cake .35 .15
angel food cake .83 .1
biscuits .62 .1
pound cake (traditional) .78 .13
good homemade sandwich bread .65 .12
Parker House rolls .71 .4
cornbread .39 .06
baguette .89 .3
birthday cake from a box .21 .75
frosted layer cake (homemade) .6 .6
magazine-cover cake (Fine Cooking) .83 .72
magazine-cover cake (Better Homes and Gardens) .68 .78
chocolate chip cookies .48 .32
slice-n-bake cookies .04 .06
decorated sugar cookies .37 .52
yellow cake .54 .27

(If you don’t see anything, or if it looks wonky, you’re probably using an older version of Internet Explorer that won’t support this level of awesomeness. Upgrade to v9 or try Firefox, Chrome, or Opera.)

Note that when I place cornbread on the grid (left side, just below middle) I’m not saying that cornbread isn’t made well; I’m saying that it doesn’t require a great deal of skill to be made well. Assume, unless specified otherwise, that each item is made well but is not necessarily the Platonic ideal of its type. Cornbread, I’m saying here, does not take a lifetime of practice to master. And I’m ignoring anything made entirely by machine; it doesn’t make sense to talk of craft there. Somebody (literally, some body) had to actually make it.

That divides the world of baked goods into four quadrants. The axes make the divisions look sharper than they really are, but for the purpose of argument:

The lower left is simple, unadorned food. Also, at the extreme, cheap crap. This quadrant is about getting dinner on the table. It’s food of necessity, and you can make a virtue of necessity, or you can just wallow in desperation.

Lower right is food that’s easy to make but gussied up; it looks better than it tastes. Drifting toward the corner it’s fundamentally dishonest food, unless you’re cooking with children. Jello salad would go here: instant eye candy.

Upper left is harder to make but basically unpretentious, the Shaker furniture of the baking world. Not everybody can make all of this stuff, and not everybody needs to.

Upper right is magazine-cover food, hundred-dollar cakes, desserts with a height element. You almost certainly have no business trying to cook this way, but a lot of people make a lot of money trying to convince you that you do, and when you fail, even more people make even more money selling you that stuff at lower right instead, which looks about the same but is fundamentally crap.

That region shaded green? That’s good home cooking — middling craftsmanship, simply presented. Not cheap crap, but nothing that will take you all day to make. It’s decent food, within almost anybody’s reach, and any sensible person would be happy with it 99 percent of the time.

I should point out that this differs from the original conversation about furniture in two ways. First, Schwarz was talking about how well a specific item is made; I’m talking about how hard it is to make a type of thing. Second, the ideal level of craftsmanship is higher for furniture than for baking; that green area would have to be higher on Schwarz’ grid. A piece of furniture is an investment; made well it can last generations, made poorly it’s just wasteful. Food is consumable, often the day it’s made. It’s wasteful in a real sense to make and eat cheap crap, but it’s wasteful in another sense to eat only the best all the time.

Then again, maybe that green area corresponds to what Schwarz avoids calling “vernacular.” But I think any further nit-picking ought to happen over beer.

One last observation, about culinary education. If you’re learning to cook, you’re starting out near the lower left corner. You want to move up as quickly as possible. Resist the temptation to move right: that’s just pretending you’re better than you are. Learn the craft first. Once you get north of the equator, then you can start getting fancy. But let yourself drift into that lower right quadrant, and you’re likely never to get out. It’s just too easy to keep fooling yourself.

  1. Actually I typed up numbers in an HTML table and wrote some code in jQuery to draw the axes and map the data points. You could plot anything with that script, actually, so if you have suggestions for future dorky posts, or if you want the code, leave a comment.