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Thread: The Instant Pot Understands The History Of Women's Labor In The Kitchen

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    The Instant Pot Understands The History Of Women's Labor In The Kitchen

    The Instant Pot Understands The History Of Women's Labor In The Kitchen

    By Bee Wilson
    Oct 29, 2019

    The following is an excerpt from Women on Food: Charlotte Druckman and 115 Writers, Chefs, Critics, Television Stars, and Eaters, an anthology of essays, interviews, illustrations, and more that celebrate the women who make up the world of food. The essay is written by Bee Wilson, of whom the anthology's editor Charlotte Druckman writes, "[She] is usually identified as a British journalist, historian, food writer, and author. She is all those things. But I think of her as a cultural anthropologist as well — or maybe that’s what unites all of those other lines of work. What Bee is always asking and answering is: What does our relationship with food tell us about who we are (or were) and how we live (or lived)?"
    Cooking, it is sometimes said, is one of the highest forms of human self-expression. But tell that to the person who is trying to get dinner ready, children in tow, after work and before bedtime, with an imperfectly stocked pantry and nagging pings from unanswered emails.

    The first time I used my Instant Pot, to make a vegetable biryani on a timer delay setting, it made me cry. This probably says as much about me as it does about this multifunctional electric pressure cooker. But still. "When we get home, there will be a piping hot dinner waiting for us," I said to my youngest son, as if announcing to a Victorian orphan that I had managed to buy him a goose for Christmas. He raised his eyebrows quizzically at the phrase "piping hot." As usual, he and I were at his after-school sports training, which annoyingly falls most days of the week during just those hours when — if only I were Michael Pollan — I would be at home, chopping an onion in a contemplative fashion. Often as not, our weeknight dinner will be food from the weekend, reheated, or a speedy omelet, or a random stir-fry foraged from the fridge. There is nothing so terrible in any of this (especially when the reheated leftovers are one of those spicy sticky stews that improve over time), but it’s the sense of time-panic and compromise that I don’t like. The first night with the Instant Pot was different. We walked in the house and smelled cloves and bay leaf and the warm scent of basmati, aromas that became still more intense when I flicked the steam valve, opened the lid and heard that happy little jingle that the machine makes when it opens or closes. Some thoughtful person had been cooking, and so many hours had elapsed since I sautéed the onion and spices and put the rice and vegetables in the pot that it did not feel as if that someone had been me.

    It is that rare thing: a labor-saving device that factors in what a cook needs and feels.
    Some say the intense devotion that this gadget inspires is due to its multifunctionality. It certainly isn’t due to its looks, which are clunky verging on ugly. This appliance — invented by Robert Wang — can do “a ridiculous number of things” as Alex Beggs wrote in Bon Appétit in 2017. It is a yogurt-maker, steamer, warmer, and slow cooker as well as a pressure cooker. But in truth, how many Instant Pot owners ever get around to using it as a steamer, let alone as a yogurt maker? The real value of this machine, in my view, is not the multiplicity of cooking techniques that it offers but the fact that it enables its users to produce a home-cooked meal at all on days when that task seems insurmountable. My kitchen has seen many devices come and go. I have bought more gadgets than I care to remember that promised to make me a better cook, a faster cook, a healthier cook. I own other devices — the microwave being the most obvious — that assume I don’t want to touch or handle food at all. The Instant Pot, by contrast, seems to understand I do want to eat and serve home-cooked food, but it also tactfully relieves me of most of the stirring and switches itself to "keep warm" mode without being asked to save me from burning dinner. It is that rare thing: a labor-saving device that factors in what a cook needs and feels.
    I didn’t expect to like the Instant Pot so much. As a rule, I am skeptical about labor-saving devices because they so seldom seem to understand that the most taxing work in the kitchen is brain work.

    Women and machines have a complicated relationship in the kitchen. Myriad devices have been sold over the years on the promise that they would make our lives easier, and, for the most part, they have failed. “Labour-saving,” says the Oxford English Dictionary, means something "designed to reduce or eliminate the work necessary to achieve a task." What the OED does not bother to mention is that — at least in relation to cooking — the phrase is usually an untruth of one kind or another. "Labour-saving" contrivances have created as many problems for cooks as they have cured.
    The first shock about labor-saving devices in the kitchen is how long they took to arrive in our lives, relative to other technologies. In the year 1900, an American city-dwelling woman could ride efficient cable cars through modern streets brightly lit by electricity yet she would return to a home containing tin and iron pots, where she was still expected to haul fuel for the fire and water in a pail, and chop ingredients with knives that went rusty unless they were meticulously cleaned. In 1900, American food preparation “looked much as it had in 1800,” according to historian of housework Susan Strasser: "Three times daily, women prepared meals for their families, using heavy iron utensils, first at fireplaces, later at stoves."
    It wasn’t merely that the makers of kitchen tools lacked the ingenuity to lessen the burden on a cook. It was more that they did not even try because, all too often, labor-intensive cuisine has been seen as a positive status symbol by those who did not toil over it. Perusing recipes aimed at wealthy households from centuries ago, I found that many of them touted the amount of work that a given recipe might require in a fetishizing fashion. (There’s still a vestige of this labor-fetish in the cooking at Michelin-starred restaurants.) There is a pancake recipe in Le Ménagier de Paris, a household advice book published in 1393. It instructs us to get a quart-sized copper pan and melt in it a large quantity of salted butter. Next, it asks us to take eggs and warm white wine and "the fairest wheaten flour," and to beat it all together "long enough to weary one person or two." I was taken aback by this phrase "one person or two," which seemed to treat servants as if they were human eggbeaters. When one of them became exhausted, another would step forward to take their place. The relative lack of labor-saving devices in the premodern kitchen reflects the stark reality that rich households possessed their own labor-saving technology in the form of servants. In poorer households, a wife’s labor fulfilled the same role.
    Not where I breathe, but where I love, I live...
    Robert Southwell, S.J.

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    I like that Michael Pollan is metaphor.
    "35% of my party believes that Obama's a Muslim born in Kenya; [Trump's] locked that crowd down."

    ~ Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC)

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    This is an interesting essay but it seems to conflate a number things and takes a fairly caviler view of historical lives and cooking customs.

    (Disclaimer - I love my Instant Pot but I well know that it is a fancy version of a pressure cooker and slow cooker.)

    While it's true that the cooks and workers in Medieval (and beyond) aristocratic kitchens did prepare very elaborate, time-intensive dishes this was done under the supervision of men and largely by male workers. Women in those types of kitchens cleaned up and did separate prep tasks.

    The average person in those eras did not eat anything like those dishes. There was no time even if the cost would have been affordable. Most housewives did not make their own breads if they lived near a village - that was the male baker's job. Women brewed ales and beer, made cheese and butter, and prepared stews and soups which could be assembled and left most of the day.

    The normal meal for most people at the time in Europe was a breakfast of bread and cheese with ale (or wine) followed by a dinner of bread and stew later in the day and then a bite of bread and some soup before sleep. Fruit was eaten in season along with greens. Holiday meals were just that - special foods made occasionally, not daily.

    A lot of the rest of this essay makes similar claims and errors.

    It's not that we shouldn't appreciate what women do and have done with food, it's that it needs to be in perspective - neither denigrated nor elevated beyond it's real role in most people's lives throughout history.

    Most farmers, masons, quarry workers, miners, glass makers, lumberjacks, soldiers, sailors, and male servants also performed equally necessary tasks and those tasks were often more dangerous physically yet no one is particularly concerned about whether they were appreciated in their own time (they were not).

    Still, an interesting essay.
    "Alexa, slaughter the fatted calf."

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