The ecosystem of the kitchen

Following on my previous post thinking about the workshop as an ecosystem, here’s an example perhaps familiar to more people: baking.

If you bake, you may have run across traditional formulas for cakes. A pound cake is made from a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, a pound of butter and a pound of eggs. A 1-2-3-4 cake has 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, and 4 eggs. Both are easy to remember, and neither depends heavily on exact measurements. If your scale is a little off, your pound cake will just be a little bigger or smaller. Any old cup will do for a 1-2-3-4 cake; you may have to adjust the eggs a bit, but since eggs vary in size (at least if your chickens are as traditional as your teacups), you’d have to do that anyway. No special instructions, no special tools required — only skill, which costs only time and bears ample fruit.

Now along comes this newfangled magical thing called baking powder, which is supposed to ensure a consistent result, no matter your skill level. Wonderful! Baking made easy! Ah, but baking powder is measured in teaspoons, and has a big impact on the final product, so that an error of half a teaspoon either way may yield a very different cake. Now you need, not just any old teaspoon, but a modern factory-made industrially calibrated teaspoon, which you have to buy from, say, Sears-Roebuck. And your teaspoons have to be calibrated to your cups, as well, so it’s back to the mail-order catalog for measuring cups. The first chemical leaveners came into use by about 1790, and their successors were widely used by the mid-nineteenth century, but only after about 1880 did they really become respectable, because only then did they become really reliable — because only then did the first calibrated measuring cups and spoons appear to measure them reliably. And then, within a generation, it became almost unthinkable to bake a cake without baking powder.

But now instead of eyeballing, which always worked well enough before, you have to learn to do level measurements. And you can’t easily experiment with the proportions of your cake, because you’ll throw off those tiny little measurements, and you’re relying now on processes you don’t fully understand. You’ve yoked yourself to a whole system of store-bought tools, which are not only made by industrially precise processes but demand new, industrially precise methods of work — and to a system of set, test-kitchen approved recipes which had better be followed with equal precision. Your whole approach to baking a cake has changed. The skilled baker now becomes just another factory worker, a kind of subsidiary of the industrial system that made the baking powder and the measuring cups. All because of one little ingredient!

There’s a book in that story, and my two-paragraph history oversimplifies things, but you get the idea, I hope. The workshop of the kitchen is also a kind of ecosystem, in which tools, ingredients, techniques, tastes all have to mesh. Cooking evolves, the kitchen changes — but not all changes are gradual or benign. Every once in a while, an invasive species can show up and cause a mass extinction. And it can be hard to know what little changes will turn into cataclysms before they’ve done it.

The ecosystem of the workshop

As I have spent more time in the workshop the past couple of years I have been thinking more and more about what I do and why I do what I do — that is, work wood with what are commonly called “hand tools.” Certain tasks (like cutting dovetails) take all my concentration, some (ripping 8/4 stock for chair legs) take enough bodily energy that I can’t sustain a complicated conversation with myself, but others (sanding, carving spoons) leave good space for thought, and in that space I find myself asking questions that I am not always able to answer. Questions like: what is a “hand tool,” anyway?

I want to use this blog, in part, to explore those questions, if not necessarily to answer them to anybody’s satisfaction. Rather than starting with what seems like an easy one — what is a hand tool? — I’m going to start in media res, with something I was mulling yesterday: the interconnectedness of tools, materials, methods of work, and the broader economy and culture — what I think of as the “ecosystem” of the workshop. That means starting deep “in the weeds” of the craft and working my way out again. I’ll try to write in a way that gives non-specialists the gist of things without boring woodworkers. That’s a narrow target; forgive me if I don’t quite hit it in a blog post.

So, to begin, a bit of background. Continue reading “The ecosystem of the workshop”

I don’t like your style

This summer my stepson worked for his uncle, who makes mailboxes in what I guess is a mid-century modern style. I say “I guess” because “mid-century modern” can mean so many things that I would hesitate to apply it to anything I actually liked. In a conversation over dinner one night, I said something to that end, and added that I really did not like mid-century modern style.

Then, almost immediately, I had to backtrack. Continue reading “I don’t like your style”

Building a splay-legged table with hand tools

This is not a project blog, meaning that I don’t want to write a lot of photo-heavy step-by-step posts about how to build things. There are enough of those out there already. Some of them are very good. It isn’t my thing, and the bases, mostly, are covered.

Occasionally, though, a project requires my working through a process that I have not seen explained elsewhere, and I’d like to write it down for my own understanding and reference… and if I’m going to do that much, I figure someone else may benefit from my experience.

This table is one such project:

splay legged coffee table

While there are some good articles available on building a table with splayed legs, they’re written for machine work. Since I work almost entirely with hand tools—I don’t own a drill press or table saw—most of the advice, and indeed even the process, in such articles is useless to me. Here, then, are ten things I learned from designing and building a splay-legged coffee table.

First, I am assuming that you can build a basic four-legged square table with straight aprons. I’m not going to explain mortise and tenon joints. Nor did I photo-document every stage of the process; I was too busy trying to build the thing. If Fine Woodworking wants to pay me to build it again and write it up (ha!) we’ll talk.

Ready? Here we go. Continue reading “Building a splay-legged table with hand tools”

Small arcs of large circles: A calculator for cheaters and engineers

splay legged coffee table, in finishing

This week I am finishing my splay-legged coffee table… in the dining room, because the humidity is such that I don’t trust oil to dry in the workshop. I will have more to say about (and better photos of) this piece, which posed several, ah, interesting challenges, but for now let’s talk about this one, which I’ve faced before and will face again: constructing small arcs of large circles.

There are three long arcs of circles on this table, at the ends of the top and on the undersides of the aprons. The longest has a lengths of 23 inches and height of 1 inch — a radius of some five feet, so actually constructing the circle was straight out. I could probably have drawn the shortest one freehand to within sawing and shaving tolerances, but the longest moves so slowly that I didn’t trust myself. I’ve been known to use Affinity Designer (Adobe Illustrator for people without corporate budgets) to draw ogees when I couldn’t get what I wanted with French curves, but I can’t print something 23" long. What to do? Continue reading “Small arcs of large circles: A calculator for cheaters and engineers”

The hidden cost of convenience

Stopping at the grocery store today to pick up something for lunch1It was an unplanned trip, else I might have brought along one of my approximately two dozen reusable grocery bags. Emphasis on might: just as likely I’d have forgotten. I don’t claim not to be part of the problem. I was reminded that whatever our intentions, not to mention our policies and our laws, humanity will continue to screw itself. To wit: When the young man (I am now old enough to use that term) bagging groceries was about to pile everything into one paper bag, the clerk pulled out another bag and started helping him, with polite but pointed verbal correction. Everything would fit, yes, but it would make the bag too heavy, and lifted by its handles it would tear. “I’ll lift it from the bottom,” I said, “don’t waste a bag.”

Of course I got the groceries home just as well as I would have done before someone thought to put handles on paper grocery bags. So I started wondering how much more paper we now use bagging groceries because we thought they needed handles, or, rather, that we needed handles, either by splitting the groceries into smaller parcels or double bagging the larger ones. This is why although I am not opposed, in principle, to banning plastic shopping bags, I’m not enthusiastically for it, either: we’ll just find other ways of wasting resources.

Convenience costs, in other words — if not us then someone else or, more commonly, “the environment.” Of course it isn’t like anybody ever decided, yes, I want handles on my damn bags and I’ll cut down twice as many trees to get them. That we use more bags is the kind of thing that might have been foreseen but wasn’t and seldom is. Cost-benefit analysis might be a cure, but it won’t prevent further stupidity, because we can’t foresee all the consequences of our choices even if we were inclined to. What’s needed is a different ethic: to say, when confronted with a new convenience, I don’t need that. Not that all conveniences are ipso facto bad, but that our default ought to be to reject them; you can always change your mind later. Instead, our default is to accept without question any and all convenience. As long as that’s the case, we’ll keep destroying everything around us.

Those old guys really nailed it.

Back in the early summer of 2013 I built this box to store my drawing and art supplies:

art box

It’s the 19th-century schoolbox from The Joiner and Cabinet Maker, made with circa-1830 methods, resized and with a till for pencils. It’s functional and attractive sitting beside my desk, and the yellow pine has aged nicely, but it’s essentially a student project, without unnecessary adornment. The exposed dovetails aren’t contemporary ornament but evidence that the original wasn’t worth the effort of fancy moulding or veneer. The simple moulding around the top is simply nailed on, with historically accurate cut nails (headless brads, actually). Here’s what the top looked like when it was first built: Continue reading “Those old guys really nailed it.”

1855: Cornstarch cake

advertisement for Niagara Corn Starch
Years before cornstarch was marketed for culinary use, housewives baked it into weirdly industrial cakes.

If any cake baked from scratch ever looked like the product of food industry marketing, it’s the cornstarch cake, a plain white cake in which a third or more of the flour is replaced by cornstarch. It seems so obviously a gimmick to get you to use up that ancient box of cornstarch in your pantry—it’s not just for pudding anymore! You might expect to find such a recipe sponsored by the Cornstarch Council, or perhaps in an ad for Argo brand. What’s more, I have never baked anything from scratch that so strongly resembled, in flavor, appearance, and texture, a packaged snack cake. But cornstarch cake was neither factory made nor even factory invented. It appeared in the 1850s, decades before cornstarch was branded and sold in boxes and before manufacturers marketed their products with recipes and cookbooks. Cornstarch cake was the product of ordinary women experimenting at home, looking for shortcuts—hacking their cakes, you might say — and that fact ought to make us rethink some of our assumptions about why Americans started eating “processed” food.


At mid-century cornstarch was new to American kitchens, and far from common. Though it had been manufactured for decades, only in the 1840s could it be manufactured on an industrial scale, after an Englishman named Orlando Jones discovered that using an alkali to recover the starch granules improved the yield. A New Jersey factory began using his method in 1844, other companies followed, and by the 1850s, according to Eliza Leslie, the great nineteenth-century food writer, cornstarch could “be had of most grocers.” Yet it wasn’t packaged for or marketed to consumers; most cornstarch was sold in bulk to other manufacturers or to grocers for use as laundry starch. Only in about 1880 did companies realize that there was a greater profit margin in selling branded boxed cornstarch for cooking purposes.1

Nevertheless, home cooks experimented. The number of meals eaten in hotel and restaurants was then vanishingly small, and the highest achievement of factory baking was the soda cracker: American cooking was home cooking, and there was no one else to do the experimenting. Within a few years of cornstarch’s becoming available Eliza Leslie found that it thickened puddings almost instantly—a tremendous improvement over flour, which must be cooked out for a good twenty minutes, stirring all the while to prevent the pudding being pasty. To be fair, Leslie, who made most of her living writing about food, was in essence a professional cook. But ordinary housewives experimented as well, and one of them thought of using cornstarch in cake. In 1855, Godey’s Lady’s Book, the original and most popular women’s magazine of the day, reported that the following recipe for “corn cake” had taken a special premium at an agricultural fair:

Take the whites of eight eggs; one-fourth pound each of corn starch, flour, and butter; half-pound of sugar; one teaspoonful of cream of tartar; half teaspoonful of soda. Flavor with almond, or suit to the taste.2

The idea, as we would say now, went viral, via the nation’s burgeoning print media. A few years later Peterson’s Magazine offered an all-cornstarch version calling for “one paper of corn starch,” butter, sugar, and six whole eggs. A correspondent to the Southern Cultivator asked, “Will your lady readers, in their next making of sponge cake, substitute ‘corn starch’ for flour, bake it quick, and send us a piece? It is something like ‘Syllabub’ endowed with ‘solidarity.’” By 1870 or so the craze had settled a bit, and cornstarch cake established itself as a white cake with a ratio of 1 part cornstarch to 2 or 3 parts flour—in which form it was submitted multiple times to nearly every charity cookbook published until the end of the century. By the time manufacturers got around to packaging cornstarch for household use in the 1880s, cornstarch cake was old news.3 Continue reading “1855: Cornstarch cake”

  1. Arthur Stone Dewing, Corporate promotions and reorganizations (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1914), pp.50– 51.
  2. Godey’s 50 (1855), p. 86.
  3. Peterson’s Magazine 33:6 (June, 1858), p. 467; Southern Cultivator 16 (1858), p. 337. On the earliest promotions of cornstarch for the kitchen, see Dewing, Corporate promotions and reorganizations, pp. 50– 51.

1904: Convenience becomes fashionable

Why do people buy industrial “convenience foods”? Because they’re convenient, of course. We’re busy, and we don’t have time to cook from scratch. Or, rather, we think we’re busy, and we think we don’t have time to cook from scratch. Sometimes that’s the case. More often, the needs we don’t have time to fill by our own labor weren’t really needs in the first place.

Take, for example, Campbell’s Condensed Soup. When that product was introduced in the 1890s, canned soup had been around for a couple of decades; what was new was the process by which the soup was condensed and the size of the can cut in half, which made the end product cheaper. The earliest ads, placed on streetcars, aimed at the working mothers who rode them, simply showed the can, gave basic instructions (“Just add hot water and serve”), and noted “6 plates for 10¢.” Some of the first magazine ads for condensed soup were placed in the American Federationist, a union magazine. A 1901 ad featured oxtail soup, which, like early soups, was intended as the backbone of a meal.1 For families with little time and little money, then, yes, canned soup seems to have been an obvious convenience.

ad for Campbell's Condensed Soup, 1901

But that’s only half the story. The other half is that home economists eagerly accepted the new convenience and sold it to middle-class women through the monthly magazines they edited. Not only did general-purpose women’s magazines like Good Housekeeping promote “progressive” cooking, but a few turn-of-the-century magazines devoted themselves entirely to cookery. These magazines offered not only recipes and in-depth discussions of culinary techniques and new products but also gave a month’s worth of daily menus in each issue. By 1904, Table Talk was specifically recommending Campbell’s soups in its menus as replacements for homemade—not every day, but once or twice a week. They didn’t suggest making a meal out of canned soup, even for lunch, but rather serving it as a first course. Here, for example, is Table Talk‘s dinner menu for Tuesday, February 23, 1904: Continue reading “1904: Convenience becomes fashionable”

Technology and active listening

You can never tell how big or how serious a trend is just from reading it about it in the newspaper, so when Melissa Korn wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal that college professors are increasingly banning laptops from their classrooms, I had to ask, what kind of growth and what kind of absolute numbers are we talking about? Like, two percent? Three guys the reporter ran into at a bar? But I’m intrigued, and maybe even gladdened, if there’s any trend that direction at all, because the more I’ve considered the ways I read, write, listen, and take notes, the less optimistic I am about the role of computers in those activities.

For example: I’ve been researching a new novel that takes place in Pennsylvania during the Civil War, and so I’m reading and digging widely — about the war, Pennsylvania German culture and language, the locations where the action occurs, farming practices, and so on. Some of this gets pretty specific: How would you build a fence, from start to finish, relying on your Pennsylvania woodlot and hand tools? What would your mobility be like with an unrepaired ACL tear? I started out from old habit doing historical research using Zotero to take notes, but while traditional formal notetaking practice is great for academic citations and bibliographies, it’s cumbersome if you’re writing fiction and all you need is plausibility. And while the ability to keyword-search a two-year corpus of research is tremendously useful if you’re writing a dissertation or a monograph, most of what I find myself asking comes up as I’m writing and is used almost immediately. Not to mention that if I’m reading a book while I wait to pick up my daughter from dance class, I have to carry my laptop with me.

So a few weeks ago I switched to using a bound notebook, hand-numbering the pages, and indexing topics in the front. It’s simpler and more convenient. But it’s also improved my research in a couple of interesting ways. For one thing, when I’m writing (which I do on a laptop, for very different but equally practical reasons), I don’t have to switch to another app to check my notes; I can flip through my notebook on my desk. Why is that better? Because I don’t lose my place in what I’m writing, and I’m not tempted to, say, check my email. The notebook doesn’t shift my focus.

notebook and pen

I also find, as I’ve found in any number of other tasks, that the body plays a role in memory. I am often quicker recalling where in the notebook a bit of information was, and in fact where on the page it was, than I am in remembering what keyword I used to index it. Even better, I’m more likely now to find that I don’t have to refer to my notes at all, because the very act of writing something down — and I mean writing it by hand with a pen — helps commit it to memory in a way that typing it doesn’t. (Let alone cutting and pasting.) Continue reading “Technology and active listening”