The Application of Convenience

7th June 2013

In the past the marriage of food and technology has spawned some extreme offspring: sterile classroom lessons in designing pizza boxes on the one hand Heston Blumenthal and molecular gastronomy on the other… but now there’s a whole new meaning to the words Food Technology.

Jennifer Lipman logs on and learns more…

Search the image-sharing website Pinterest for any type of food – muffins, say, or salted caramel macaroons – and you will be inundated. Recipes… suggested toppings… you name it, Pinterest will have it, and all accompanied by mouth-watering photographs.

But beyond offering space for what has become known as ‘food porn’ – a term coined by a feminist writer as long ago as the 1980s – it’s also practical: an easy and convenient way for cooks to catalogue what they have made or one day hope to. As regular user Alisa puts it: “It’s made me a domestic goddess.”

In the 90s, such a claim might have seemed a tad retrograde. Who wanted to be a domestic goddess, or a domestic anything, when you could be a power woman? Nigella might have made it look sexy, but why bother at all?

But times have changed. Maybe it’s the Mad Men effect, or the consequence of Jubilee and Olympic-infused nostalgia. More likely, it’s the age of austerity that is sending more and more British women back into the kitchen, and the reason why domestic crafts such as knitting are suddenly on-trend.

Television has a role to play, what with The Great British Bake Off and its recent needlework counterpart The Great British Sewing Bee, but technology is also crucial, because with so much help on hand, it’s never been easier to embrace our inner domestic goddesses.

Pinterest, which started in 2010, now has almost 50 million users, with women comfortably outnumbering men. While its ‘boards’ now cover all manner of interests, 17 per cent are categorised under home, while 12 per cent are arts and crafts related, and more than one in ten showcase food.

Users rate it for introducing them to new ideas or blogs. “It’s the modern equivalent of exchanging ideas over the washing line,” says Ellie Levenson, author of The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism.
“It’s the combination of speed and ease – if you want to make a chocolate cake, you’re presented with an endless supply of ideas,” explains Alisa. “Technology has allowed for it all to be collated together and made things incredibly easy to access. Instead of trawling through books everything is right at your fingertips, from wedding planning to hair styling.”

Pinterest might be a market leader, but the wired (or wireless) domestic goddess has plenty of alternatives. From the outset, the internet has been a go-to point for domesticity, with scores of forums offering the sort of housekeeping tips traditionally found in ‘advice for women’ columns – how to clean that stain, how to maintain your curtains, how to fillet fish – but it’s no longer a niche. In 2012, according to AllRecipes, the number of home cooks visiting video sites for meal ideas doubled to 18 per cent, while around the world, one in seven have reviewed an online recipe – largely, explains company spokeswoman Jenn Davis, because women are leading increasingly busy lives and relying on the convenience of technology.

My Recipe Book is one of a litany of apps that allow you not only to import the best ideas from a range of sites, but also to share them with friends, and adjust ingredients depending on portions. Hello Fresh suggests a recipe, devises a shopping list, delivers the ingredients to your doorstep, and acts as a cook’s aide while you make it.

The switched-on cook can access a meal idea, then store a shopping list (and even, as with the Sainsbury’s App, order the ingredients for home delivery) all from the comfort of a phone or tablet. I use Springpad to organise my recipes, but from Food with Friends to the Martha Stewart Makes Cookies App, the list is endless. And it’s the same story with knitting, for example, or decorating – Dulux even has an app allowing you to create ‘colour schemes’ and order paint samples.

And while technology has not yet usurped Mary Berry and her competitors, it has appropriated what they do. Allrecipes, which has seen more than 15 million downloads of its mobile apps, recently launched the free Video Cookbook app, offering directions alongside instructive clips. “Users can pause, skip, and go back, simply by tapping the corresponding step in the directions,” says Jenn.
Even without the professionals, there are simply thousands of ‘amateur’ tutorials online, discussing and explaining everything from stencilling to wall painting techniques. Stuck for an imaginative floral centrepiece? Google should be your first port of call.

For those of us who spent their school years producing lumpy shepherds pie or knitting exceptionally bumpy blankets, video clips that don’t simply tell you the steps – as a book does – but also show you, are indispensible.

Of course, such digital fare lacks the stamp of approval that is conferred by a publisher, a relative or, at the very least, an established columnist. In the world wide jungle, there is no quality control – who says ‘unitedlinen’ knows what they are talking about when it comes to folding a serviette into a swan? But with three thousand other YouTube videos sharing similar advice, there’s no reason for loyalty.

And, as Sian Meades, the founder of the successful website Domestic Sluttery, points out, sites focusing on a particular craft are functioning as communities, with other users (anywhere in the world) who have tried it at home, instantly on hand with their feedback.

The Sewing Forum, a UK-based space ‘for crafty people’ has a vast membership, and includes sections dedicated to urgent advice. For all that a traditional book might seem infallible, it can also be lonely – Delia and Jamie won’t respond as you turn the pages in despair, wondering why your soufflé doesn’t in any way resemble theirs (although Jamie’s team replies to comments on his web recipes).

“Online, we connect to likeminded people – a trusted network,” explains Sian. “When I want to know why my cake sinks, or need a new recipe recommendation, I know who to turn to.”
In addition, while the revival in domestic devotion might be part of a ‘keep calm and carry on’ nostalgic movement, the modern goddess is far removed from the stereotypical lonely 1950s housewife, tearing her hair out for want of adult company – not least because, as Sian observes, social media means we now have ‘bragging rights’.

It’s no longer just those who come into our home who see the fruits of our endeavours – within minutes your fabulous flower arrangement can be attracting Facebook likes. “One click and you've Instagrammed your amazing kitchen creation,” says Sian, “while it’s going cold!”

But if we’re in it for the nostalgia and as a challenge to the frenetic pace of contemporary living, how do we reconcile that with cutting corners via our iPads? And are we going back to basics only to prove on Facebook that we really do have it all? The revival of the domestic is hardly a betrayal of feminism, but making it a part of our public persona by tweeting our cupcake’s Kodak moment suggests we still invest heavily in what others think of our domestic skills.

After all, our mothers and grandmothers – those domestic goddesses that us modern gals apparently want to emulate – learned how to make pastry the hard way. They might have appreciated the way technology can ease the daily grind, but by and large, they did these things because they had to, not because they had clever gadgets.

Perhaps, as Ellie points out, the ‘homemade trend’ is actually a reaction to a world where we all have identikit technology churned out in a factory. But even so, she rejects the idea of a disconnect. “It's actually technology that is allowing us to embrace crafts,” she says. “If we had to wash everything by hand or cook everything over a fire instead of sometimes using the microwave then we wouldn't have time to do any of the fun things.”

It’s a fair point. “The average person never did every part of their domestic activities alone without utilising the technology available, whatever age they lived in,” she adds. “Flour went to the mill, weavers supplied material, and so on.”

Baking apps – just the next stage in the evolution from the caveman cooking over a fire to the housewife using her oven? After all, we’ve always shared domestic tips, passing them down the generations. It’s that now – thanks to Steve Jobs and others like him – we’re privy to everyone’s family secrets. I’d call that progress.

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