Shopping and cooking were less fun before all this.

Photographer: Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated

Give Thanks for Williams-Sonoma and the Garlic Press

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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You may not have known Chuck Williams, but you know his brainchild, the Williams-Sonoma stores that for decades have dominated the market for high-end kitchen goods.

On a trip to France in the 1950s, Williams discovered that French cooks took for granted an array of equipment, from heavy pots to nifty tools, that were mostly unknown to their American cousins, who were busy discovering new and exciting ways to use canned soup and pineapple in dishes.

He bought a hardware store in Sonoma, California, turned it into a kitchen store, and thus helped to launch the American kitchen arms race towards newer and fancier equipment. Every time you use your garlic press or Le Creuset, you should stop to appreciate what Mr. Williams did for you. He died Saturday at age 100, so let's take a longer moment now to give thanks.

Mr. Williams had a cultural phenomenon working in his favor. His equipment store took off because people like Julia Child were teaching Americans to stop seeking inventive new uses for the marshmallow, and start investigating pot-au-feu. Nor was his store the only place where you could procure such equipment -- I didn't learn about the existence of Williams-Sonoma until my 20s, because in my childhood, such equipment came from places like the second floor of Zabar's. And in fact, Williams was not even the one who made the chain ubiquitous. After an early expansion that created a small, money-losing chain, he sold the business to a computer tycoon in the late 1970s, and returned to curating merchandise rather than empire-building.

Nonetheless, he was a pioneer. It would have been tricky to produce consistent, high-end food with the limited and flimsy equipment that was available to the average American cook in 1950 -- just as it would have been tricky to sell those Americans garlic presses and lemon zesters if a new generation of authors had not been convincing American cooks of the need. The cookbook authors and the equipment vendors were symbiotic, and together they revolutionized American food.

And Mr. Williams must retain a special place in the hearts of gadget lovers like me, because stores like his helped turn buying kitchen equipment into a fun consumer experience, rather than a merely utilitarian one. The experience -- what the former chief executive officer of Sur la Table once called "the romance" of kitchen equipment -- has of course spurred the proliferation of devices to make cooking faster, easier, more consistent or just more fun.

It is customary in these days of "slow food" to sneer at these devices, to aver that a real cook doesn't need more than a cast-iron dutch oven, a good chef’s knife and a sense of adventure. As someone who took herself off to Chicago for three months with pretty much exactly this set of equipment (okay, also an electric pressure cooker), I can testify that this is true -- sort of. You can get by with a very minimal set of equipment if you know how to cook. But as someone who has done so, I have to ask: Why would you?

I mean, yes, I know how to chop onions just fine. But doing so makes me cry like the dickens, unless I wear goggles. I know how to make great lemon curd, béchamel, hollandaise, caramelized onions. But my Thermomix makes them just as well, and I can read a novel instead of standing at the stove, stirring. I can whisk up an angel food cake in a copper bowl … or I could let the stand mixer do that, and my arms won't hurt.

For that matter, I could also go out and grow my own wheat, mill it myself, and then mine some salt and cultivate some wild yeast to bake bread. But I don't do these things, because subsistence farming is actually pretty arduous and unrewarding, which is why few of us have chosen to live off the grid. I see no reason to romanticize the grunt labor of the kitchen. If a machine does it as well as I do, and fits in my paycheck, I'll happily outsource to the machine, and save my labor for the stuff the machine can't do. This being basically the entire history of human economic progress to date.

And I haven't even started on what these machines can do for folks who can't perform these kitchen miracles by hand, either for reasons of infirmity, or because they don't know how. There seems to be an unspoken assumption among some foodies that it's not fair that folks should be able to get the results without putting in the labor to learn the techniques. I say if gadgets can put great food in more kitchens, that's an immense boon to humanity, and the food snobs should stop sniffing about the ineffable superiority of hand-whisked egg whites.

For while Williams-Sonoma and its ilk are often presented as the bastion of food snobs, the truth is that they're actually a great democratizing force for American food. Real food snobs, the folks who have loads of money to travel and the time to frequent restaurant-supply shops, could always get their hands on good equipment. It's the regular people who haven’t the time or money to developing an encyclopedic knowledge of kitchen techniques, and a collection of equipment to match, who benefited from sticking a fancy kitchen shop in every American mall. 

Perhaps that wasn't the original idea behind Chuck Williams's store, and perhaps he didn't oversee its democratizing expansion. But without him, it might not have happened. And the country would be a bit worse off, and certainly less well-fed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net