The Impact of Slow Cooker Cuisine

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Product promoter Christine Frederick wrote a cookbook for a hybrid gas stove and slow cooker called the Sentinel in 1915. Although Frederick touted the appliance’s economy, she also emphasized its liberationist potential. She had discovered the Sentinel during her “experience in trying to get away from drudgery.” Studying her own routines and analyzing letters from hundreds of women, Frederick concluded that women wasted 70 percent of their cooking time in pot-watching. One solution was to pick up the “delicatessen habit,” the early 20th-century term for relying on takeout. Frederick, however, felt obliged to provide home-cooked meals for her family.

Inspired by the women’s rights movement, Frederick also felt an obligation to herself. She wrote, “I knew it wasn’t fair or good for me to be so ‘tied down’ and unable to have recreation, or get new viewpoints of what was going on and being done outside of my own home.” Reflecting the new idea that women had a right to leisure, Frederick was delighted that while her meals cooked themselves, “I may be enjoying the second act of a popular play; I may be in church, or at the club.” Including church as a possibility was a selling point, as abandoning the kitchen might make a woman seem like a wanton hussy.

Fireless cookers were eclipsed in the 1920s by gas and electric stoves with self-regulating ovens. Being able to set the oven to a particular temperature, combined with a timer, meant that cooking required less supervision, although not quite as little as Frederick had suggested. The kind of food prepared in fireless cookers also had a limited range of textures and flavors. Fireless cookers could not fry or bake, two of America’s favorite cooking methods since the mid-19th century.

Fireless cooking remained a forgotten art until an accident of corporate amalgamation. In 1970, the domestic appliance company Rival bought a smaller competitor, Naxon. Rival commissioned a staff home economist to come up with some recipes to expand the repertoire of Naxon’s electric bean pot. In 1971, when her booklet went out with the newly christened “Crock-Pot,” a trend was born and other companies began to copy the idea, calling their products “slow cookers.”

Like Christine Frederick 60 years before him, cookbook writer Carlson Wade also promised that “the slow cooker gives you carefree cooking. There’s no need to remain imprisoned in your hot kitchen…watching the meals.” It was 1975 and the second wave of the women’s movement was well under way. While glass ceilings shattered and bras smoldered, Wade’s message would have had a strong appeal. Slow cooking even had a role to play in the sexual revolution. A recipe column in Playgirl magazine the same year celebrated the crockpot’s ability to free up women for extended sexual encounters: “Perhaps you’d thought of bed after [dinner], but it’s getting more and more obvious that it’s dinner that will have to wait.”

Ubiquitous during the 1970s, the slow cooker was once again eclipsed in the 1980s with the rise of nouvelle cuisine. Cookbook author Lora Brody recalled, “As cooking became more of a leisure activity and sexier equipment, such as gleaming copper pots, turbo food processors, and espresso/cappuccino machines, became kitchen essentials in many homes, the slow cooker was shoved farther back in the closet, stored in the basement, or sold off at yard sales.”

Brody wrote her remarks in 2001, which was a period of resurgence for the slow cooker. New technology made the pot programmable so that it could be set to start cooking when no one was home. The crockpot and its ilk fit well with the early 20th-century fad for comfort food. It also complemented the new work culture, which required long hours from professionals. A woman could work 60-hour weeks as an executive but also provide for her family and tap into trends if only she loaded up the crockpot early each morning.

In 2007, Beth Hensperger, author of several books about slow cookers, also tied the appliance to contemporary themes in food writing. “I am a proponent of wholesome, fresh food,” she wrote, and “easily obtainable seasonal ingredients.” Using the language of the locavore, she claimed the slow cooker “fits into not only my food philosophy, but my time schedule as well.” Always praised for saving time, the slow cooker may now attempt the role of socially conscious cookware. But it still can’t fry an egg.

Megan Elias is the author of Stir It Up: Home Economics in American Culture and Food in the United States, 1890–1945. She previously wrote about the history of the word gourmet in Gourmet Live.

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