What The Instant Pot Tells Us About The History Of Women's Labor

by Bee Wilson
Pressure Cooker Sweet Potato Curry

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.

There can be something poignant about the labor-saving devices of the late nineteenth century because they bring home just how much work was once required to get a meal on the table.

The realization that cooks might actually like to be relieved of some of their grind seems to have dawned very late. It was only in 1791 that the phrase "labor-saving" entered the language — in relation to industry — and it would be decades more before labor-saving tools entered the kitchen in any significant quantities. In the 1850s and 1860s, a sudden rash of small mechanical cooking utensils came on the market in the United States, made of cast iron and tin. There were cherry pitters and apple parers; eggbeaters and butter churns; lemon-squeezers and ivory cucumber slicers. Many of these items were the subject of patents and were presented as great miracles launched on an unsuspecting world.

There can be something poignant about the labor-saving devices of the late nineteenth century because they bring home just how much work was once required to get a meal on the table — work that in many cases has now become obsolete because of advances in food processing. The meaning of "scratch cooking" has changed considerably over the years. Whether she was a servant or a wife, a nineteenth-century cook was often expected not just to bake her own bread and churn her own butter, but to grind and sieve her own sugar, skin her own almonds, light her own fire, and even to deseed her own raisins, one by one. In an era before seedless raisins, the mechanical raisin seeder was an object of desire, a profitable enough item that it was advertised in newspapers. Here is an example from San Francisco in 1866:

The Latest Improvement.
112 and 114 Battery Street

A typical raisin seeder was a heavy cast-iron object that was clamped to the table like a meat-grinding machine. You would feed wet raisins into the hopper and crank the handle and — hey, presto! — out came perfectly deseeded raisins. The raisins were squeezed between two rollers, which forced out the seeds. One raisin seeder manufactured in Manchester, England, claimed it could seed a pound of raisins in just five minutes. The raisin seeder sounds like a marvelous invention, even if its time has long past. But it leaves me feeling wistful that it was ever needed. Think of the hours of manpower (or rather womanpower) that must have been wasted making raisins and sultanas fit to eat, especially in the weeks before Christmas when there were fruitcakes and raisin-studded puddings to bake. Imagine all those women who sat in a poorly lit kitchen attempting to remove the seeds from a pound of raisins, one by one.

In the context of such drudgery, the new labor-saving devices of Victorian times probably did seem pretty impressive, even if they barely scratched the surface of the work that a cook needed to do in a day. Everything was modern once and it’s hard to remember that tools that today appear cumbersome were once the dernier cri. In fairness, a few of these nineteenth-century kitchen gizmos genuinely were marvels at performing a single self-contained task. The apple parer is a case in point. Before the contraption became common in the American kitchen, people in states such as Vermont, where that fruit is grown, used to hold "paring-bees" at which an itinerant apple parer would arrive with a machine and peel a few bushels’ worth in an evening while the rest of the party got to work coring and chopping. This changed with the advent of the domestic apple parer.

The first apple-peeling patent was issued in Great Britain in 1802. By the 1850s there were dozens more in both the United States and United Kingdom. The earliest models were very basic, consisting of little but a rotating wooden fork on which the apple would be speared. The idea was to hold your knife against the apple as it rotated and thus remove the skin. It’s questionable whether this was any less taxing than simply paring an apple by hand. But in the second half of the century, there was a great leap forward: Inventors started to design many varieties of all-in-one hand- cranked parers, corers, and choppers. Versions of these can still be bought in kitchenware stores. You attach each apple to prongs at the end of the apparatus — which attaches to a table — turn the handle, and before you know it, you have a piece of perfectly peeled and cored fruit, shaped like a slinky or a concertina. The effect is so clever that it can still make onlookers gasp, in my experience.

Yet this multitasker was an outlier in its brilliance. All too many of these early “labor-saving” tools were ineffective, trivial, or slightly ludicrous. There were peanut-roasters and automatic mustard-dispensers, horseradish scrapers, and biscuit breakers (the biscuit in question being a kind of rigid, matzo-like cracker). Looking back in 1890, a journalist in the Los Angeles Times recalled the strange flood of useless objects that arrived in kitchens a few decades earlier: "Among other patents which I remember are jar-lifters, bag-holders, fish- boners . . . and a thousand and one curious appliances for household matters." Writing for country-dwelling women in 1881, Helen Campbell noted that "many complicated patent arrangements are hindrances, rather than helps." The problem with most of these is that they were designed more with a view to profiting than meeting the needs of a cook. The same is true of much kitchen paraphernalia today. It is a rare tool that is any improvement over a pair of dexterous hands and a sharp knife.

Due to its coinciding with a radical adjustment in the division of labor between the sexes, the arrival of appliances did not necessarily make life any easier for women. This case was made, with scholarship and wit, by Ruth Schwartz Cowan in her groundbreaking 1983 book More Work for Mother. From around 1860 to 1960, the American household steadily shed its colonial character and became industrialized. That century saw countless new contraptions hit the market, from cheese graters to toaster ovens; electric waffle presses to blenders. But, at the same time, the whole workflow of household cooking changed, and not to the benefit of women. Cowan observed that in the preindustrial rural kitchens of the United States, men and women were forced to collaborate to prepare food. The housewife might stew a simple meal of meat and grains in a kettle, but her husband would have grown the grains, butchered the meat, and constructed the fireplace. He grew corn; she baked cornbread. Children would also have helped out their parents by carrying pails of water. By contrast, the advent of industrially milled flour and cast-iron stoves and running water left women alone in the kitchen, solely responsible for making dinner.

"There is more work for a mother to do in a modern home because there is no one left to help her with it," wrote Cowan. As late as the early 1980s, the author observed that the existence of large numbers of culinary contraptions could make some men feel unburdened of any obligation to help out. "In homes where there are garbage disposals, men give up removing the small quantities of garbage that still need to be carried to the curb; and in households where there are dishwashers, men cease providing whatever help with the dishes they had formerly proffered."

To add insult to injury, many kitchen gadgets came with the message that now that she was being given so much help in the kitchen, a cook had no reason to complain about her lot.

Another problem with the labor-saving devices aimed at women is that they have always come along at the same time as a rise in culinary expectations, so the net result was a cook who was more exhausted than ever. From 1850 onward, eggbeaters became a veritable obsession in the American household. From 1856 to 1920 there were an astonishing 692 separate patents issued for this tool, the most famous of which was the Dover with its two revolving beaters. When it came to getting fluffy egg whites, not one of these elaborate designs was an upgrade from the French balloon whisk (an unimprovable piece of engineering) or even on the old-fashioned birch twig whisk, which can do a surprisingly effective job if you don’t mind the occasional fragment of bark in your meringue. It would not be until the electric mixers of the twentieth century that beating eggs became radically easier. The early patent eggbeaters, by contrast, brought only the illusion of ease, coupled with a sense that producing perfectly beaten eggs was something that women ought to do, and a woman in possession of a Dover felt obliged to make fancy cakes with it. The popularity of these whirligigs also corresponded to a new vogue for angel food cakes, which necessitated huge volumes of eggs to be beaten, the whites and the yolks separately. So far from halving a woman’s work, this latest, greatest mechanism could actually multiply it.

To add insult to injury, many kitchen gadgets came with the message that now that she was being given so much help in the kitchen, a cook had no reason to complain about her lot. "Cooking a Recreation" was the headline of an insufferably patronizing advertisement a kitchenware company placed in the Salt Lake Semi-Weekly Tribune in 1898. "It is very foolish to make hard work of your cooking," advised the copywriter, "when you can make the work in the kitchen a pleasant recreation by spending a very little money for a few of our labor-saving kitchen utensils." These alleged labor-savers included tea strainers, fruit steamers, and "favorite cake spoons," none of which would seem to offer any detectable alleviation of effort. Given that perfectly serviceable spoons have been around since ancient times, it was insulting women’s intelligence to call these utensils labor-saving.

The great feminist worry about all this equipment — articulated by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique — was that it would trap woman in the role of housewives, confining them to the home. Kitchen inventions of the early twentieth century did not just pretend to make cooking easier, but to transform women’s lives by turning their prescribed headquarters into a gleaming enamel paradise. Strange as it now seems, in that era, one of these supposedly life-changing devices was a cabinet that became a widely coveted object of desire before it was supplanted by the refrigerator. Like other household contrivances, these early cupboards — which contained many compartments, from cutlery drawers to sugar-bins — sold themselves on the promise of order. How could a woman who owned so many inter-locking drawers possibly be unhappy? In 1900, a full-page advertisement for the Hoosier kitchen cabinet insisted it "saves health, good looks, strength, time and standing." "The Happiest Surprise of her Life!” was the tagline of another advertisement for one of these miraculous pieces of furniture; the accompanying image showed a glamorous mother in a flapper dress standing in dazed rapture next to her husband, who presents her with the open cabinet as if it were a great prize.

The trouble with kitchen cabinets — as with so many other "labor-saving" tools — is that they did not get to the nub of what makes cooking so arduous. It is often not the doing itself that is or was so hard but the life circumstances of the responsible party. By the 1920s, an American housewife on a modest income might have access to a gas oven, a technology that is surely one of the greatest advances in the history of cooking. After centuries of building a life around the smoke and inconvenience of a fire, cooks could now switch the flame on or off at will. Yet, as Cowan observes, the truly labor-saving technology would have been effective birth control. "When there are eight or nine mouths to feed (or even five or six), cooking is a difficult enterprise, even if it can be done at a gas range."

You can tell that the "labor-saving" kitchen of the 1950s was a lie from the fact that so many women chose — if they could afford it — to have human servants as well as appliances. From 1940 to 1950 the number of domestic workers in the United States dropped from 2.5 million to 2 million. But then — in one of the great mysteries of American social history — the number of people working in service rose again, back up to 2.5 million by 1957, a growth of 31 percent over five years. As a journalist for Time magazine wrote, "Despite all the labor-saving new gadgets, the U.S. woman wants and needs a maid to help out." A maid might work a 60- to 100-hour week for low pay and be required to do shopping as well as cooking and cleaning for the household. She would have to have been prepared to cook three times a day, but not make a sound while doing it. In July 1943 House Beautiful magazine noted that "noises of pots, pans, and dish scraping can ruin an excellent meal."

No high-tech mixer could have made the life of a maid easy because she was required to turn herself into a kind of machine. One of these domestic workers, an American woman, wrote about her life in Ladies’ Home Journal in 1960. She complained that her employers simultaneously expected her to have the "kind of organizing and intelligence a woman uses in managing her own household" and yet treated servants like her "as though we did not have a brain in our heads." Maids of the 1950s — who were likely to be over the age of 50 and African American — were expected to be as mute and responsive as a refrigerator.

The whole concept of “labor-saving” assumes that the work of cooking is something that needs to be canceled out, or mitigated, or forgotten.

We like to believe in progress. But consider again that medieval pancake recipe from 1393 that asked for the batter to be beaten long enough to "weary one person or two." Was this mindset really so different from the affluent American households of the 1950s that expected their maid to cook in silence and stand around all night waiting for a party to finish so she could wash their dirty dishes and rinse their martini glasses? In both cases, tethered to it by marriage or the need to earn a living, humans in the kitchen were being treated as robots.

The whole concept of "labor-saving" assumes that the work of cooking is something that needs to be canceled out, or mitigated, or forgotten. When Julia Child burst onto the scene in 1961 with her French cooking "for the servantless cook," she offered a counterblast to the labor-saving mindset and its compromises. "This is a book for the servantless American cook who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, time schedules, children’s meals, the parent-chauffeur-den-mother syndrome, or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat,” announced Child in her foreword to Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Whether they were making quenelles de poisson or Quiche Lorraine, she urged her readers not to take shortcuts: “A pot saver is a self hampering cook.” To Child, the wonders of French cooking deserved—no, required—the correct vessels and utensils for the job. She was not interested in saving labor but in saving cuisine and in her own pleasure.

Child was part of a novel way of thinking about home cooking from the 1960s onward, at least among educated middle-class American women. What if time spent in the kitchen could be more like play than work? The postwar years saw the emergence of a completely new kind of kitchenware store that presented tools such as chicken bricks and asparagus steamers as toys, targeted at an emerging breed of hobbyist cooks. These expensive articles were designed more to enhance the luxury of being in the kitchen than to cut down on work. For those with the money and the leisure, it could be huge fun to spend time coaxing delicious scents in beautiful pans, relishing the suave texture of hollandaise or the lovely jolt of a lemon when it is zested. But for the average cook on the average income, the chore of preparing meals remained largely unsolved. Yes, there were those all-in-one food choppers advertised on home shopping channels — mince onions, whip cream, make salsa, all with a few turns of the handle! — but they were so fiddly to wash up that they were hardly worth the bother. Meanwhile, the microwave promised to make cooking a breeze — or reduce it to the zapping of a pre-prepared, store-bought frozen dinner — but this was only true if your definition of cooking didn’t include rendering food crispy or brown or tasty.

Behind the disappointment of labor-saving devices lies a bigger problem, which is our collective failure to see the work of cooking as something important, and skilled, and worthy of our respect. "We simply do not value the most valuable thing in the world," says architect Carolyn Steel, author of Hungry City, on the topic of food. We like to imagine that dinner arrives on our plates as if by magic and we discount the work involved in getting it to us, whether it is the toil of a cook in a kitchen, or the punishing lives of tomato pickers and the chicken packers who enable us to feed ourselves.

In the end, it was the processed food industry, more than any wonder tool, that spared Western women in the twentieth century the labor of readying a meal. Marketers of packaged foods have spent a long time convincing us that real cooking is never worth the grind. Who needs a cherry pitter or an electric pastry mixer if you can stroll into a supermarket and buy a mini cherry snack pie anytime you feel like it? It won’t be the same as a real cherry pie made from scratch, not even close. But what if you don’t know the difference? We are now in an era where most of the meals we eat most of the time are not so much labor-saving as labor-forgetting. Around half of all food consumed in the United States and United Kingdom is "ultra-processed"; we no longer understand most of what goes into its production — or the origins of its ingredients, come to that.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are still places in the world where most cooking happens the slow and difficult way, without a single labor-saving apparatus. India is one of them. The country would grind to a halt without the unpaid labor of women producing delicious feasts from scratch three times a day, often in kitchens with the most minimal tools. In 2017, I spoke to art historian Prajna Desai who spent three and a half months running a culinary workshop in Dharavi, the largest slum in Mumbai. She documented the cooking and the lives of eight of the women she worked with in her 2014 cookbook The Indecisive Chicken: Stories and Recipes from Eight Dharavi Cooks, which is one of the most extraordinary food books I have ever read because it describes how cooking fits in with the rest of a person’s life; among the interviewees, it was both an inescapable daily burden and form of solace.

The women Desai met did not think they were doing anything special, as they used the palms of their hands to flatten roti breads or painstakingly stuffed bitter gourds with a mixture of green mango, onion, and spice, sealing the edges with toothpicks; they saw these actions as part of a vital job, producing food that gives their families both health and pleasure. Many of them derived satisfaction from their craft. They took the time to burn an eggplant over an open flame to perfect silky smokiness. Yet the care that went into that task and so many others like it was somehow never given its due, because in the eyes of their culture and their husbands, they were simply fulfilling an obligation. Under these circumstances, no wonder people switch to packaged sliced bread, which is becoming popular in India, as elsewhere. It’s also striking that cooks in that country have been among the world’s keenest adopters of the Instant Pot, embracing it as a faster route to making traditional slow-cooked dishes such as butter chicken. This could be a sign that Indian women will not always be prepared to thanklessly devote hours of skill to the kitchen.

Instead of asking, “How can we cancel out this work?” we could instead try to ask, “How can we reward and recognize this work, and the person who does it?”

"We fetishize the scent of cardamom in rice pudding but the women producing it are forgotten,” remarked Desai when we talked via Skype in 2017. She spoke of the deep ambivalence she felt about home cooking in India. She grew up eating her mother’s food and saw Indian cuisine as something for which there was no substitute and no shortcut. There is no tool that can replicate a human hand when it comes to the making of chapattis and other flatbreads. But that being so, why are the hands and the women they belong to not given more respect?

Perhaps the real problem with the concept of "labor-saving" in the kitchen is that it tries to answer the wrong question. Instead of asking, “How can we cancel out this work?” we could instead try to ask, “How can we reward and recognize this work, and the person who does it?” Cooks have never been given anything like their full due.

I don’t think we need to get too purist or too artisanal in our cooking. For something that can be prepared just as well by a machine, let a machine do it (unless you crave the sensory pleasure of doing things the slow way). As the chef Raymond Blanc has said, you can make sweet pastry by hand instead of in a Cuisinart, but it will take much longer and won’t be any better. I am only too happy to delegate one or two work-night suppers a week to my Instant Pot. But there are those dishes whose production relies on the human touch and intellect, and it’s time we gave the people responsible for getting them on the table some respect. We buy “smart” fridges and “innovative” egg poachers but no gadget has ever been half as clever in the kitchen as a person and her wooden spoon. As Mrs. C. S. Peel wrote in The Labor Saving Home in 1917, "The greatest labor-saving apparatus which we possess is the brain."

Women on Food: Charlotte Druckman and 115 Writers, Chefs, Critics, Television Stars, and Eaters is available now from Abrams Books.