Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

lifestyles of the middle-aged upper middle class (sort of)

If you are middle-aged, upper middle class, and reside in the Bay Area, you receive lots of glossy catalogs in the mail: Room and Board, Crate and Barrel, Title Nine, The Territory Ahead. Anthropologie, with its seven-hundred-dollar skirts. L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer, Land's End. Postcards advertising season tickets to the symphony, the ballet, the University lecture series (Oliver Sacks! Steven Hawking! The Dalai Lama!).

If you are middle-aged, upper middle class, and reside in the Bay Area, yesterday's mail brought the ultimate in lifestyle/food pornography: the September Williams-Sonoma Catalogue. You know the one, with the green Le Creuset braiser on the cover, featuring Cannelini Beans in Herbed-Tomato sauce, see recipe at

Most of the catalogues are recycling-bound. I would never order furniture through the mail. I don't surf, ski, or play tennis, so wicking gear is out. Being short and curvy means buying clothing without trying on is out of the question. Besides, I will never, ever spend seven hundred dollars on a skirt. A set of All-Clad pots is another thing again, but when the time comes, W-S is the last place to buy cooking equipment. One might as well toss money off the Bay Bridge, or, even better, shop at Sur le Table, where there is a mark-up on the mark-up.

Let's have a peek at Williams, shall we? Here are Paul Bertolli's Fra' Mani sausages, a forty dollar bottle of Tuscan olive oil, a set of salt and pepper mills for eighty dollars. A gnocchi ridger. (I'd been needing one of those). A stainless steel olive oil can that looks like a postmodern version of what Dorothy used on the Tin Man. Italian grannies everyone are coveting one at this very moment.

Okay, I'm being bad. Williams-Sonoma products are certainly high-quality. I bought my beloved red Le Crueset Braiser from them last year. What puts me off is the lifestyle marketing. Lots of faux-Tuscan, pseudo-French Country settings, trestle tables set to look to like they are smack in the middle of a Calabrian grove, marketed toward people who are happy to have a tiny balcony.

The All-Clad pots (roughly the equivalent of the centerfold) are ranked: the set for "someone who is learning to cook or prefers to have only the most indispensable cookware pieces in the kitchen." The set "most cooks need, whether you're preparing everyday meals for the family or cooking for a party." Finally, the money shot: "If you love to cook and entertain, this is the set for you. A superb choice for experienced cooks who spend a significant amount of time in the kitchen, it's configured to handle a wide range of cuisines and culinary techniques."

Who wrote this copy? Are you one person or a team? Did you attend the Iowa Writer's Workshop hoping to pen the next Special Topics in Calamity Physics, then get sucked into the maw of corporate filth? Are you drowning your sorrows using the Picardie Tumblers on page 22? Or have you allowed your eyebrow piercing to close as you laugh all the way to the bank?


My current pot and pan repertoire consists of one Target stockpot, one Calphalon ten-inch stainless saute pan with a lid, a twelve-inch Calphalon non-stick pan, an Analon stainless four-quart saucepan with a lid, the aforementioned Le Creu, and a cast iron skillet. That's it. With this motley assortment I have managed to turn out dinner every night for thirteen years. Do I want some All-Clad? You bet. More Le Creu? Sure. But do I need the fifteen piece set that somehow magically knows tonight is tagine and not tortellini? Hell, no! Do I have room in my non-Tuscan, non-stainless kitchen for all those pots? I live in the second most expensive city in the United States! My kitchen is ten feet by four feet!

BUT--and here it is--people like me should want the copper risotto pot and those cute serrated knives with the colored handles. I mean, we're serious cooks, right? We eat organic grass-finished beef. We refuse fruit from Chile. We eat fresh tomatoes only in season. And when we entertain, our guests feel exactly as we do. And if they don't, if they buy their kitchenware at Costco and eat tomatoes year-round, well, we can feel superior to them as we serve butternut squash risotto made from jarred butternut squash puree (a steal at $18 for two jars), the pork Arista in the Ruffoni Copper Roaster (Hopefully our guests are not Jews or Muslims....), then close the meal with affogato, using the ice cream we prepared in our Cuisinart Supreme Ice Cream Maker ($249.95).

Serving this meal using the right pots, pans, and serving utensils will evoke certain feelings: security, superiority. The opposite, perhaps, in our guests. But isn't that what we're after?

Yes and no. Most of the people I know pride themselves on being able to cook and entertain in a sophisticated manner. The one-upshamanship is subtle but present; I attended a dinner party last year where a guest spoke at length of a knife shop in Japan. "The next time you're in Japan," he said to me, "be sure to stop by this place. I go there whenever I'm in Tokyo."

I have never been to Tokyo. Travel plans are not in the immediate offing.

Or consider acquaitances of ours. We'll call them Mike and Sue. Mike and Sue married a couple years ago and promptly bought a sizable home for a sizable sum. The place was built in the forties and needed a great deal of work. Mike and Sue are handy types, and dug in. The home morphed from a aging white elephant to a sleek dwelling straight out of the Crate and Barrel catalogue. Their wedding photos hang along a hallway, pristine in their floating frames, each carefully styled to look candid. The kitchen boasts a large knife block filled with Wusthof cutlery. Sue serves wine with glass charms. These earring-like tchokches help guests remember which glass of pinot is theirs. A tour of the house display rooms painted in the latest colors: snappy yellows, mellow creams, bronzed browns and bloody deep reds. Their bedroom furnishings are heavy dark wood; the bed is dressed in a heavy goosedown comforter housed in a white duvet. Everything is spotless.

The food at Mike and Sue's parties is as delicious as it is beautiful. Elegantly skewered bits of chicken. Handmade phyllo pastry encasing mushroom filling. Tapas platters that look like Japanese flower arrangements.

Feeling wormlike with my mismatched bedroom furniture and workmanlike condo, I compliemted Sue on her home.

You really like it? She asked, clearly pleasantly surprised. It turns out she and Mike were overwhelmed by the prospect of decorating an entire house. So much so that they went to Crate and Barrel, catalogue in hand, and bought entire rooms by showing a salesperson the pages they liked. Literally.

I've been to the house a few times now. It grows lovelier with each visit. Yet the place is completely impersonal. Apart from the staged wedding candids, nothing tells you Mike and Sue live there. There are no knicknacks or books or sporting equipment; nothing is lying around.

Mike and Sue are the ultimate lifestyle customers. Uncertain of their tastes, they relied on a slavishly styled, slickly photographed catalogue to create a home. In that home they are living the Crate and Barrel lifestyle, right down to the wine charms. When friends visit, they are overcome by the perfection of the rooms, the delicious, delicate food, the hip aura Mike and Sue emanate. It's easy to buy into it for a few hours, to feel wrapped in a falsely generated magic. When the evening ends and I return to my comparatively inadequate home, I cannot help but look around and feel a tiny bit ashamed by the shoddy entertainment center, the ugly baby blue kitchen tiles, the cabinets with their worn metal hardware.

The catalogue got all of us, coming and going.

This is not to say any of the aforementioned products are bad in themselves. They are merely things, and the power they have over us--me, Sue, the person who orders the superb choice of All-Clad pots at $1500--isn't generated by the evil copywriters. How nice it would have been to blame them. Instead, I tossed the cataolog into the recycling bin and made dinner using my cheap Calphalon nonstick pan.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Smart of you to bring this up, Kitten. You'll probably like this:

Suz (a long time lurker -- thanks!)

September 19, 2006 8:00 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Incisive post. I made my way here after being inspired by the gnocchi roller in the King Arthur catalog. I have a thick olive tree branch that a moving truck broke off the tree in front of my apartment, and I got inspired to turn it into gnocchi ridgers to give to friends for the holidays--knowing full well that I'm competing with $5 version from the web and that the project will take me several weekends. At least my 9 piece kitchenaid pots are shiny :)

November 01, 2011 2:53 PM  

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