The Telephone, a Kitchen Appliance

Jun 26, 2013 | Updated Aug 26, 2013

Before I moved to New York City in 1998, I had had no direct exposure to U.S. culture -- food habits included. As I was getting acquainted with the city, one of the aspects of everyday life that struck me most was the fact that few people seemed to spend any time cooking. In fact, the telephone was probably the most used kitchen tool in the city. Ordering in was as normal as taking the subway or buying a pretzel off a cart in the street. I often wondered what the real function of the grocery stores and the bodegas in my East Village neighborhood was. And it became clear to me why kitchens were so small, at times not more than a corner in a hallway.

At the time, home deliveries of food were unheard of in Italy. When we did not feel like cooking, we would go out to a restaurant, swing by the closest take-away pizza place, or buy prepared meals in a deli store. In NYC, you just picked up the phone and chose among Chinese, Italian, Indian, Mexican, and other cuisines I had never tasted before. I could have Tibetan dumplings delivered to my door! Although I was theoretically excited by the idea of making the phone a part of my daily food procuring, in reality it felt somehow wrong to me, like I was cutting corners. Calling a restaurant to have dinner brought to my apartment felt like a luxury that I was not entitled to, regardless of the price. Convenience felt like an undeserved indulgence that would destroy the necessary connection between my kitchen labor and results that I could fully enjoy. In hindsight, I suspect that the lingering sense of guilt was also connected to the fear of scarcity that my parents and elders, who had lived through War World II, had managed to instill in me.

For a long time, cooking had been part of my routine, of what I considered a normal, healthy, sensible lifestyle. Besides, making dinner -- or any meal for that matter -- and sharing it with others was a fundamental part of what food meant to me. However, whenever I tried to have my new NYC acquaintances over, I frequently got puzzled (if not straight out suspicious) looks, especially if I extended the invitation on the fly. It took me some time to realize that it was not so common to invite people to one's apartment to eat, unless you had already known them for a reasonably long time and plans were made long in advance. Through the telephone, I was also able to keep in touch with the friends I wanted to meet and dine with, even when that meant playing "phone tag" and leaving each other numerous voicemail messages. All this was happening long before texting and social media allowed for almost uninterrupted -- albeit not always relevant -- contact.

Now cooking is back, touted as a socially responsible and culturally relevant act to the point that we often fail to remember that many in our city do not have the time or the financial means to fully dedicate themselves to it on a daily basis. I still prefer cooking when I have time and especially when I have guests, but picking up the phone and ordering from my favorite Thai restaurant has become a not-so-guilty pleasure. Not that I am actually talking to anybody when I do that; I use apps most of the time, even to get my groceries delivered...

The objects we use every day without any second thoughts can tell us a lot about us, both as individuals and as members of all kinds of communities. A telephone will be part of the exhibition Masterpieces of Everyday New York: Objects as Story at the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery in The New School in New York City, from June 27 to September 4, 2013. Curated by Radhika Subramaniam and Margot Bouman, this exhibition features 62 objects selected by designers, artists, anthropologists, sociologists, historians, writers, musicians and others -- all inhabitants of New York -- that each narrate a biography of this place.