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Diffusion of Innovation


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#1 Silly Disciple

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Posted 27 September 2005 - 08:26 AM

I haven't been around long enough to have witnessed how innovation has been adopted from avant garde cookeries to the average joe's home. I remember my mother buying all the newest and latest gadgets, but can't really say much about the underlying innovation that was taking place then.

However, it seems that this era has brought (and is bringing) a new and better understanding of what we eat and how it affects us. Molecular Gastronomy is not only about gels and foams. As anyone who has read McGee's book can confirm, it is about understanding what processes affect what we eat and how it affects it.

One could claim that advances in science are continuous, and this hasn't happened overnight, and that adoption of new techniques and products is as old as home cooking.
However, what I think is new is that these advances in science are now fashionable, and are being slowly adopted not only by the Ferran Adria's of the world but by educated cooks who are not only interested in novel ways of cooking but also in better and healthier treatments.
It wouldn't be unreasonable to claim, based on what we believe nowadays, that a coliflower puree thickened with agar-agar and olive oil is healthier than a potatoes and butter one. Yet lots of people regard agar agar and other "novel" products as misterious, sometimes associating them with chemicals, and thus unhealthy. Personally, I'd much rather have an agar-agar based puree than anything coming out of a can, but this possibly because I have some understanding of the products in question.

Moreover, some techniques seem prone to wide adoption once it's workings and consequences have been fully understood and properly disseminated, ie. if we understand the nature of bacteria growth, it wouldn't be hard to adopt a home-kitchen version of sous-vide, I think. Other techniques, with no clear benefit other than wow factor (ie liquid nitrogen) seem to me more of a fad destined maybe to a diffusion at the "trendy restaurant" level rather and a wider one.

And this seems only one side of the coin: globalization has made it possible for any cook anywhere to offer products from remore regions in pristine conditions. These days I can buy Bolivian quinoa, which we know believe to be extremely healthy, as well as fresh italian Mozarella, which we know believe not to be bad as we thought before. And forgotten products are being re-adopted again (possibly on account of their modern "rarity" status), but seem also as good candidates for wider adoption. I am thinking in this case of barley, for instance.

I would be interested to read what others think of these phenomena.
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#2 Bux

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Posted 27 September 2005 - 12:08 PM

The first thing I'd have to admit is that chefs and scientists are making me take a second look at ingredients. The first time I took a look at ingredients, it was to eliminate those chemicals that didn't seem very food-like from my diet. The second time around, I'm learning not to fear agar-agar and guar gum. Ice cream with gum in it can taste a llittle "gummy," but I'll make my decision on whether to buy it again on the taste factor and not simply because the product isn't all dairly and sugar. There's soluable fiber in that gum and it supposedly works against the cholesterol as well. When I buy a piint of ice cream, I really don't care how it's chilled. If it's stirred for nineteen hours as it freezes, or if it's the immediate result of stirring liquid notrogen into the cream mix, makes little difference to me. As for the use of liquid nitrogen as in Adrià's teppanitro where frozen deserts are made à la minute on a cold surface, it's harmless and entertaining theater and should last as long as flambeed desserts and waiters running around with flaming kebabs on a skewer. If you're the first kid on your block to experience it. If you're about to be the next to last, consider looking for the next fad and save yourself the disgrace of being the last. Perhaps more relevant, chefs still flambee things behind closed doors in the kitchen, they just don't sell it as show business any more. Liquid nitrogen may find it's legitimate place in the kichen.
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#3 jackal10

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Posted 27 September 2005 - 12:58 PM

The title of this thread "Diffusion of Innovation" is also the title of Everett Rogers's groundbreaking book, http://www.amazon.co...=books&n=507846 now in its fith edition and a standard text in economics. In it he describes how ideas spread, be they a new food, a new sort of corn elevator or even a new religion.
I wonder if the reference was deliberate.
He derives five criteria: ACCTO.
A stands for relative advantage. There must be some reason to adopt the new food or cooking method - maybe it tastes better, or is easier or cheaper to prepare.
C stands for Compatibility. The food must fit into existing dining and kitchen arrangements. For example a high end kitchen can easily accomodate water bathe for sous vide cooking, but surprisingly few bakeries have walk-in cold stores for cold dough or retardation.
C stands for complexity. Cooks (and guests) must understand enough to make the new food, and diners must understand enough to appreciate it.
T stands for testability. Restaurants (and guests) must be able to test out the new offerings without completly having to revamp their menus - amu offer it as a special initially.
O stands for Observability. The new must be visible - hero chefs, TV chefs, famous restaurants, articles in the trade press (and eGullet).

Of course with the Internet information travels faster, but innovation still takes about 10 years from lab to mass market product. Its not always the high end chegs that innovate which then trickles down: Innovation seems to be going the other way with leading edge chefs adopting techniques like gums and other texture modifiers, that have been around in the industrial food industry for ages.

Technology hasn't changed that much in home cooking. Its still hard to get a domestic oven that will cook well, hot enough or cool enough.
Information technology at one stage promised that goods could be made to order, instead of mass-produced. For example no longer as Henry Fors said "you can have any colour as long as its balck" Nowdays we can order a new car or a new computer in any number of colours or options. No so with packaged or mass food: the choices are increasingly limited.

The biggest high-tech innovation in food? Probably the microwave, maybe the home breadmaker.

#4 Silly Disciple

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Posted 27 September 2005 - 02:11 PM

The title of this thread "Diffusion of Innovation" is also the title of Everett Rogers's groundbreaking book, http://www.amazon.co...=books&n=507846 now in its fith edition and a standard text in economics. In it he describes how ideas spread, be they a new food, a new sort of corn elevator or even a new religion.
I wonder if the reference was deliberate.

It wasn't. I have studied diffusion of innovation as part of my research work in social and complex networks, but I didn't know about this book until now. I will definitely take a look at it now. thanks for the reference.

The biggest high-tech innovation in food? Probably the microwave, maybe the home breadmaker.

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I think it was Italian scholar Umberto Eco who said that, despite our appreciation for complex inventions and machines such as television, the microchip, etc., the biggest tech innovation of this past millenium has been the cultivation and harvesting of legumes, ie beans, peas and lentils. Without them, Europe's population wouldn't have made it past the XII century. :biggrin:
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#5 Pan

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Posted 27 September 2005 - 02:15 PM

Haven't legumes been cultivated in South Asia and the Middle East (not to mention the Americas) for a lot longer than a millenium?

#6 M.X.Hassett

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Posted 27 September 2005 - 02:26 PM

A little of topic but: "
"It is suspected that the cowpea was domesticated 5,000-6,000 years ago, probably in Ethiopia, and in conjuction with the domestication of sorghum, Sorghum bicolor. Obviously, it would have been an important dietary item for a long time before that." and "Soya beans were selected by early agriculturalists in Asia, and have been cultivated for at least 2,000 years." from http://www.naturalhu...i... of Legumes
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#7 Silly Disciple

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Posted 27 September 2005 - 02:31 PM

Haven't legumes been cultivated in South Asia and the Middle East (not to mention the Americas) for a lot longer than a millenium?

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what do I know, I'm not an italian scholar. :biggrin:
I looked up the original article by Eco.
Joking aside, I think the point is that the introduction and diffusion of a "new", simple tool (in this case, mass harvesting techniques) may allow for a much wider adoption than a more complex tool with maybe a higher "wow" factor, but a much lower contextual impact.
Looking at it this way, is the microwave such a big innovation, compared for instance to pasteurization (I know, there's a time difference of over a century, but still) or deep freezing?
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#8 Pan

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Posted 27 September 2005 - 02:57 PM

The microwave? No. It's the discovery of cooking that was the big innovation. The microwave oven is simply a latter-day way of cooking.

#9 Bux

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Posted 27 September 2005 - 06:48 PM

. . . . For example no longer as Henry Fors said "you can have any colour as long as its balck" Nowdays we can order a new car or a new computer in any number of colours or options. No so with packaged or mass food: the choices are increasingly limited.
. . . .

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I think it may depend on your definitions. Do you want a choice of many cars, or one basic car in many covers. I remember when Allvin Toffler's Future Shock appeared in paperback with a choice of covers in different colors to illustrate a point about the change from the industrial revolution. The choices increased even though it hardly made a difference what color the cover was and it could well be argued that there really wan't any more choice at all, just the one choice in many colors.

Where do we stand on prepackaged easy to microwave meals. It shouldn't matter that the precooked rice can be bought in different colored bozes, but it does matter that consumers have a choice of Mexican rice, Asian rice, Spanish rice, Cajun Rice, Creole rice, etc. It doesn't even matter that neither Cajun rice nor Creole rice are true to their names, but they are different and you can nuke your favorite flavor or enjoy a new one every day of the week without chopping and cutting or owning any spices.
Robert Buxbaum
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Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.
My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.