How smart products undermine the simple joy of cooking
It didn’t happen overnight, but it was fast.
Just 50 years after the birth of the personal computer and 30 years since the internet sprang to life, our lives are now saturated with smart technology.
We work on computers, socialize through screens, and take our phones literally everywhere. We exercise with tech, bring it to dinner, and regale our friends with status updates on vacation. Dazzled by vivid screens and seduced by the mystery of features we’ve yet to try, we buy more. Across the world, an estimated one hundred twenty-seven new devices connect to the internet every second.
To say we’re utterly preoccupied with technology isn’t hyperbole. According to a Pew Research study last year, nearly 3 in 10 Americans say they are now online “almost constantly.” For 18-29-year-olds, the number is closer to 50%.
Even the one place we’re supposed to be able to unwind and unplug — home — has succumbed to tech.
While connectivity is good in many ways, the fact that we’re slowly losing the ability to ever disconnect is worrisome. Even the one place we’re supposed to be able to unwind and unplug — home — has succumbed to tech. So last year, when my brother-in-law bought me a “smart frying pan” as a sort-of-but-not-really gag gift for Christmas, warning bells went off in my head. The kitchen, I realized, is one of the last low-tech spaces in my life, one I’m not ready to sacrifice to the new gods of gadgetry.
On achy knees and in search of caffeine, I descend the stairs each morning and make my way to the kitchen. Well aware the majority of my day will involve technology (I work from home), I forsake all screens until I’ve at least had a chance to eat breakfast and fully wake up. I load the coffee maker, put news or music on the radio, and then decide which of several go-to breakfasts to prepare.
One of my favorites is a fried egg and toast. All I need are a few basic utensils, a toaster, and a frying pan over medium heat that I get hot and buttery before cracking an egg into it. As the radio chirps, I perform my sacred rituals and absorb the calming sensations of the morning kitchen. The coffee maker gurgles, the smell of toast rises, and the egg hisses as it hits the pan. An over-medium egg takes about three minutes per side to achieve slow-running yolky perfection.
My ears let me know if the pan is too warm, and my eyes tell me when to flip. A perfectly cooked egg is a work of art and is only achievable with total focus on what’s happening inside the pan.
For users of smart frying pans, though, frying an egg is altogether different. First, they launch the app and place the pan on a lit burner. Through Bluetooth, the pan tells the app how hot it is; the user can scroll through the app to find the “correct” temperature for an over-medium egg and adjust the burner accordingly. The app even tells them when to flip. Assuming the pan works correctly, it still strips the user of the simplicity of preparing food. My ears let me know if the pan is too warm, and my eyes tell me when to flip. A perfectly cooked egg is a work of art and is only achievable with total focus on what’s happening inside the pan.
Around midday, I take a well-earned break from staring into my computer and head back to the kitchen for lunch. My wife calls me the sandwich king, due in part to how often I eat them, but also because of my meticulous preparation.
As I dice onion for tuna salad or brown the first side of the bread for a grilled cheese, I allow my mind to fully disengage from tech and any work issues. I find that even five or ten minutes of mental relaxation improves my mood heading into the afternoon. For the undiscriminating tech lover, though, lunchtime is just one more link in the unbroken chain of device use.
Several appliance giants now sell smart hubs, which are basically 27” touchscreen computers with built-in vent hoods that you mount above the stove. Although smart hubs bring a litany of tech features into the kitchen, only one directly relates to cooking, a recipe app.
I use a recipe app sometimes, sure, one I can easily access through my smartphone. What smart hubs really do is bring a lot of features unrelated to cooking into meal preparation, allowing users to stream content (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” anyone?), check their calendar or email, control the rest of their smart home, and share photos or video of what’s happening on or around the stove.
Fortunately, the actual venting works well on most models from what I’ve read but, like all vent hoods, can be quite loud. This could prolong an awkward video call when the smart hub user can’t hear a friend or family member ask, “Do I see smoke?” or, inevitably, “I can’t hear you, can you call me back when you’re finished cooking?”
I am more gratified by and more successful at cooking when I focus. If I happen to pull off a perfect grilled cheese, or something more challenging like a French omelette, it’ll be because I was paying attention to my ingredients.
When the workday is finally over and the last email has been sent, the kitchen beckons me once again. Just last night I made linguini and red sauce from scratch, one of my wife’s favorites and something our toddler will actually eat.
Before I began prepping my ingredients, I put Ray LaMontagne on the radio and opened a bottle of Merlot. For the next hour and a half, the soothing actions of mixing, kneading, slicing, and sautéing combined with the wine and music to vaporize all traces of workday stress. But even the simple act of opening a bottle of wine, which humans have been drinking for around 10,000 years, is no longer safe from tech.
Anyone who’s ever left a bottle of red wine open knows about oxidation. To prevent it, I use a low-tech but highly effective system that lets me pump out the air while replacing the original cork with a rubber one. With no batteries, apps, or electronics whatsoever, the bottle stays good for up to a week. The product is clever but not “smart,” and it’s very inexpensive.
But for the wine lover who also loves tech, there are now expensive wine preservation systems that complicate the hell out of pouring a glass of wine. With one, a glass of wine can be poured without ever removing the cork—the liquid passes through a long needle, and the system charges the bottle with a burst of argon gas with each pour so oxygen can’t get in. Another system requires the bottle to be poured into a special storage bag that eliminates excess oxygen, pairing with an app to also keep track of wine inventory.
Once again, these gadgets rob users of the incalculable joy of simplicity. When it’s time for one of the easiest and most pleasurable parts of my day, the last thing I want to deal with is apps, power cords, specialty bags, and argon gas.
Every day, the allure of smart products in all facets of life becomes harder to resist. The internet teems with those extolling “connected cooking” as a way of elevating our skills with smart tech, but what about our connection to the act of cooking? For me, finding moments throughout the day to disconnect from gadgets is crucial to my mental well-being, and the kitchen is an ideal place to do that.
Truman Capote, a man who took both his professional craft and free time seriously, may have said it best, “Oh, I adore to cook. It makes me feel so mindless in a worthwhile way.” The trick to using cooking for relaxation is allowing ourselves to become absorbed in each small step of the process. When smart products demand even a small part of our attention, that meditative benefit is undercut.
Although I’ve mentioned only a few of the smart kitchen products on offer today, a range of others such as toasters, microwaves, salt shakers, and cutting boards are being snatched up by eager technophiles every day. The fact that so many of these gadgets seem to complicate otherwise simple tasks, as opposed to solving a problem, indicates to me that we’re in the early stages of innovation in this space.
But I know the day will come when kitchen gizmos become so good that even the most dogmatic of us will have to reconsider. Until then, I’ll be in my humble kitchen with Ray and a half-empty bottle of red, happily kneading pasta dough while an herby tomato sauce ripens on the stove.
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