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Aficionado culture is where fun goes to die

From cooking to woodworking, rising levels of skill have become a barrier to entry

Megan McArdle | Bloomberg 

From cooking to woodworking, rising levels of skill have become a barrier to entry

Are we making too complex?

That’s the gist of a thought-provoking tweetstorm from economist Lyman Stone, which I’ve edited into a slightly easier-to-read paragraph form:

There are two things happening in the US food culture: More out and a complexification of If you look at recipes from a generation or two ago, there are few ingredients, few steps. Simple, largely working-class type stuff. 

A “good cook” today is expected to be an expert at analysing the vast panoply of globalised ingredients available on the market today. We are told that good requires specific ingredients, has numerous rules, has to have a salt-rubbed cast-iron skillet.

The normative hurdles we erect for what constitutes good are enormous as we have gotten more choices. …But what you’re doing isn’t excellent household food prep but farm-league  

Some of this is welfare maximising: Globalisation creates new choices and scale efficiencies that make the whole food culture tastier! But I worry that the preference-forming mechanism in our food culture is changing too; are people really more satisfied with their food now?

I think that the answer is “Yes, they are.” As I’ve noted before, a once-common creature has nearly gone extinct in our society: the bad cook. My grandmother’s generation was full of them, people who understood that they had an obligation to feed their families, but lacked either the skill or the willingness to do it well. Now, I’m always surprised on those rare occasions when I sit down to the table of someone who’s a bad cook; most people who don’t like to cook eat out, or buy something they can heat up. And the rest of us don’t much miss the rock-hard biscuit; flaccid, overcooked vegetables; and flavourless gray meat which are so ubiquitous in the novels of yesteryear. On the other hand, also has a point. There’s a common pattern you see when technology renders some skill less necessary: It becomes a sort of luxury, and in the process, upskills. A hundred and fifty years ago, lots of people climbed onto the back of a horse every day. Outside of a few specialty professions like herding, the people who do so in 2017 are likely to be affluent, and engaged in some fairly complicated sport like show-jumping, barrel-racing, or dressage. The kinds of folks who just plopped themselves into the saddle and sat there like a sack are all off doing something else.

You can name any number of other activities where this is true, from rowing a boat to When activities become hobbies, the average skill level rises, and the activity itself tends to become more complicated and intensive. After all, the people doing them really enjoy what they’re doing, so naturally they look for more ways to enjoy themselves — and to show off for their fellow hobbyists.

But that rising level of skill, effort, and information intensivity becomes a barrier to entry for the casual who might well develop a solid repertoire they could at least occasionally haul out, if the core hobbyists weren’t so busily complexifying everything.