The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention & Innovation
Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian Beanie Illustration

New Perspectives
on Invention and Innovation

Food for Tomorrow

November 5-6, 2010
at the National Museum of American History


Second Course

In the Kitchen: Preparing Food for Tomorrow
Saturday, November 6, 2010

  • Bess Williamson, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Delaware
  • Cesar Vega, Mars Botanical
  • Molly O’Neill, author and reporter
  • Moderator: Rayna Green, Smithsonian National Museum of American History

What were the cutting-edge technologies of the past? How will we make our food in the future? Will a cook need to be a chemist? Will meals be made by immersion circulators (“sous vide”) or induction heat, microwaves, wood fires, or biomass briquettes? Will we be eating slow food, fast food, or no food? Molly O'Neill, Cesar Vega, and Bess Williamson discussed past and emerging technologies, methods, foodstuffs, and fuels.

Bess WilliamsonBess Williamson, University of Delaware

Bess Williamson studies "something that might sound odd or surprising to many at first," as she put it: "Disability as a source of innovation and industrial design and particularly in kitchens and cooking for today." She went on to illustrate how "the people who make and plan the spaces that we use have shifted their approaches to respond to the conviction that people with disabilities can and should be part of mainstream society. No longer are we comfortable with the idea that if we suffer severe injury or disease in our lives that we should be shoveled to the back rooms or to institutions, but rather we have come to understand that we should remain part of our families, living in our own homes, and participating in the most important rituals of everyday life, of cooking and eating food."

Williamson argued that, as the population in the U.S. ages, "things like a visible limp or use of a wheelchair , or scooter, or a bad back and joints, a little bit loss of hearing or vision aren’t things that are considered to be life ending." This acceptance triggered changes in the design of everyday things, from wheelchair ramps, accessible bathrooms, and parking spaces, to more general design features in consumer culture. Talking about the accessible design features in kitchen products from the last half century, Williamson concluded, "My understanding from looking at history is that people often don’t really want to give up cooking. They don’t want a robot necessarily to do that work for them. They want that work to be easier, but they may not be looking for it to be replaced. So instead what we tend to see is a slower process of integrating new technologies in order to maintain existing activities and habits."

Watch the video of Williamson's complete talk »

Cesar VegaCesar Vega, Mars Botanical

Cesar Vega is a food scientist who talked about his vision of the kitchen of the future. "What should it look like? The kitchen should be an interactive and engaging place. Again, some of these might sound utopian to some of you, this is my dream. It goes beyond the microwave. It is equipped with the basics: a stove, an oven, a fridge, etc., plus a few useful gadgets. A thermometer and a scale are basic because whatever you cannot measure, you cannot control." In other words, Vega sees the kitchen as part laboratory.

One more ingredient is needed, however. "Even with all of this in place, we still need someone to cook. The key question is how can we enable better home cooking?"

Watch the video of Vega's complete talk »

Molly O'NeillMolly O'Neill, author and reporter

Molly O'Neill is well known for her cookbooks and food writing for the New York Times. She talked about the changes she's seen in "30 years of close observation of what people put in their mouths" and reflected on "the cultural context that we’re operating in right now." O'Neill believes that "we are at a time of a convergence of back to earth and environmentalism. We are at the tail end of a movement in a way of thinking about food that began with the sort of post-World-War economy, optimism, and the effects of international travel. We are now living in a time when food is being defeminized and possibly in the last days of the oral tradition of cooking. We are seeing the rise of a primarily white and Ivy-League-educated food expert, who looks and sounds a great deal different than the food technologist and home economist, who we were reacting to when we created a food revolution."

Within this context, O'Neill proclaimed, "My hope for the future of food is that I am not looking in the rearview mirror some day and seeing that every move we made and every thing we glorified actually contributed to the end of the kitchen at home and supported the industrialization of food production, not just of food farming, but actually what we put in our mouths. And I don’t want to feel like I contributed to that, because I cook because its fun and because it says something about who I am and because it says I am a human being and that’s what I think about food and that’s why I celebrate food. Its one place where were still allowed to be individuals; we still control our own destiny at dinner."

Watch the video of O'Neill's complete talk »

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