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Olivia Potts | Longreads | November 2022 | 16 minutes (4,649 words)
It’s six in the morning, and Robert Booth has already been on the road for three hours. Sitting alongside him in the cab of his lorry (the British term for a truck) is Louis, Robert’s small dog, a Jack Russell-chihuahua mix, and a washing-up bowl covered in bungee cords. The cords secure a slow cooker, which is happily bubbling away as Robert heads north along the A1. Dinner is still six hours away. Tonight, he’s having black bean chili.
Robert Booth is a “tramper,” a long-haul lorry driver who sleeps in the cab of his vehicle when on a job. He began driving lorries at age 48 after illness meant early retirement from the prison service. He quickly became dissatisfied with the food choices he found along his routes. “When you go to a service station, every place you go, you can get a Burger King or a KFC or a McDonald’s. The average age of a lorry driver is 55. We are well and truly in heart attack territory. And on top of that, you stick fried food …”
Robert’s solution was the slow cooker. In the small hours of the morning, when most of us are sleeping, he prepares his ingredients on a small bench in the body of the truck, puts them inside the ceramic pot, and plugs the cooker into an inverter in his cab’s cigarette lighter. The washing-up bowl stops the pot from falling off the passenger seat, and the bungee cords secure the rattling lid. At the other end of his journey, he has dinner — as long as Louis hasn’t got there first. This can be a real risk. Last week, Robert told me, the dog made off with “a wonderful piece of smoked haddock” that was defrosting on the passenger seat.
Humans first cooked food in a pot around 10,000 years ago. As Michael Pollan notes in Cooked, it marked a major advance in efficiency from roasting on an open fire. “Every last drop of the fat and juices from the meat, which over a fire would be lost, are conserved … Pot cooking allows you to make a tasty dish from a third-rate or over-the-hill cut of meat, and to stretch a small amount of meat so that, with the addition of vegetables and sauce, it might feed more mouths …”
Pot cooking also set the stage for the dawn of agriculture, since — as Baron Karl Friedrich von Rumohr put it in The Essence of Cookery — “innumerable natural products were rendered edible.” The very concept of ingredients and recipes didn’t really exist before we began to combine foods in a pot. Food writer Bee Wilson called it “the leap from mere heating to cuisine.”
One-pot cookery was soon harnessed by cultures across the world, often taking low-and-slow cooking to its logical extreme by using residual heat to slow-cook stews and casseroles. Orthodox Jews would make cholent, a stew, before sundown on a Friday. Left in a cooling oven overnight, they could eat cooked food without cooking on the Sabbath, which is prohibited. In fact, cholent played a key role in shaping the modern slow cooker.
Irving Nachumsohn was born in New Jersey in 1902. His mother Tamara grew up in Vilna, a Jewish neighborhood in Vilnius, Lithuania. On Friday nights, her mother, Nachumsohn’s grandmother, would make cholent. She would fill a crock with pastrami shtickel, vegetables, and beans, and have Tamara take it to the local bakery to cook slowly overnight in the bakery oven’s cooling heat, nestled alongside dozens of other neighborhood families’ pots.
Nachumsohn was a born inventor. He invented an electric frying pan, the hula lamp (an early version of the lava lamp), and the TeleSign (an electronic news scroller). He was so prolific in fact, that he decided it was easier and cheaper to pass the patent bar himself so he could act as his own lawyer. During the long hot summer of 1936, he set out to solve the problem of cooking beans without having to stand over a hob or leave an oven pumping heat out into the house. He remembered the cholent his mother had told him about and, as with his previous inventions, applied electricity to the issue. He applied for a patent for the “Naxon Beanery” — he had shortened the family name to “Naxon” following World War II — an electric cooking pot with a fixed chamber and internal heating element. It was the world’s first electric slow cooker.
Naxon was an extraordinary inventor, but no marketer. The Naxon Beanery was not a commercial success. Twenty years later, a company called Rival bought the technology. The acquisition was a bit of a punt. “No one paid any attention to it,” Rival’s President, Isidore Miller, told the Kansas City Times in 1981 — that is, until someone in Rival’s test kitchens realized that Naxon’s device could cook more than just beans. In 1971, Rival green-lit a commercial release, rebranding the Naxon Beanery to reflect its new-found versatility. The Crockpot was born. (Crockpot, incidentally, is like Kleenex or Hoover: a brand name so well known, it’s used to cover a whole product category.)
It was the right product for the right time. Married women were beginning to seek jobs outside of the home, taking them away from the kitchen. A major oil crisis had bumped up the cost of cooking. And Rival knew what they were doing: The Crockpot was available in all the trendy colors of the day — harvest gold and avocado — and marketed as the pot that “cooks all day while the cook’s away.” In 1971, sales were $2 million. By 1975, they were $93 million. In that same year, Mable Hoffman’s Crockery Cookery, the first dedicated Crockpot cookbook, was published, featuring recipes like “Busy Woman’s Roast Chicken” — chicken stuffed with “stove top dressing,” or packet stuffing, and cooked in sauternes wine — and “Alphabet Pot Roast” (beef braised in alphabet soup). That year, it outsold The Joy of Sex and the Star Trek Starfleet Technical Manual. To date, it has sold over six million copies, making it one of the bestselling cookbooks of all time.
The Crockpot arrived amid a slew of innovations, from the microwave oven to the breadmaker, that promised to save women from the drudgery of cooking for their families. But unlike its technological contemporaries, the slow cooker didn’t speed up a working woman’s cooking, it slowed it down. The crucial part was being absent for almost the entire cooking process: A woman could actually leave the house and enter the workplace, without neglecting her wifely duties. What the modern Crockpot brought to the kitchen — or more accurately to the woman in the kitchen — was inattention. No one had to tend a fire, or make sure it didn’t dry out. No one had to watch and stir. The Crockpot was that rarest of things: a product that delivered on its tagline. It did indeed cook all day while the cook was away.
When I was 21, I was living in London, training to be a criminal lawyer. I was young, free, and extremely single. My sister, on the other hand, was loved up and settled in a long-term relationship. For Christmas, she received a set of fancy, cast-iron Le Creuset pans from my parents. I, on the other hand, received a slow cooker for one. I acted offended at the time, but the truth is, it was a very thoughtful gift. I had no affinity for cooking whatsoever, and was out all day, every day, but — thanks to that slow cooker — I still managed to eat a home-cooked hot meal a couple of times a week. I made an awful lot of beef stew.
Here’s the irony: When I was 25, my mum died, and I inherited her Le Creuset pans, which, among other factors, ultimately led me to abandon the law and retrain as a professional cook. I became, I’m ashamed to admit, somewhat sniffy about slow cookers. I wanted to stand over a hot stove, stirring and fiddling. Throwing a bunch of ingredients into a machine and leaving them to do their thing for eight hours simply wasn’t proper cooking. Once I’d got to grips with pan and flame, the slow cooker was relegated to the back of my cupboard.
I was being a snob. Slow cookers are useful for all sorts of people, but particularly for a specific kind of cook: the person who wants to do things from scratch, but lacks the time, culinary knowledge, or confidence to do so on the hob or in the oven. It is a sympathetic tool, unlikely either to burn your food or leave your meat undercooked. Your timings can be out by hours with little impact on the end result. It’s economical, too — first in its ability to make the most of cheap cuts of meat and tough vegetables, second in its small energy footprint (it costs about the same to run as an energy-saving lightbulb).
In its heyday, the Crockpot was a popular wedding present — that’s how Mable Hoffman got hers — and it’s easy to see why. Here was a group of women juggling the expectations of the previous generation (household maintenance) and the current one (being a working mother). The Crockpot squared the circle. As Paula Johnson, curator of food history at the National Museum of American History, said in an interview with NPR last year, “I think it’s important to establish that the Crockpot had an impact on women of a certain demographic in the 1970s. We’re talking of generally white, middle-class women who could afford the device.” In the intervening years, user demographics have changed. Where once the device was explicitly (and exclusively) marketed to married women, it has since found a receptive audience in single people, with recent marketing — and my Christmas present — reflecting that. Found to be particularly popular with single men, in 2012, Jarden, the current owners of the Rival brand, even partnered with the NFL to create crockpots with logos for all 32 teams.
When I started writing this piece, I reached out to communities of slow cooker fans on Facebook and Twitter and asked what drew them to this form of cookery. Their responses were myriad: it’s safe; it’s easy for people with mental or physical disabilities to use; it’s great for batch cooking; it’s cheap to run; it’s healthy (because food retains moisture in a slow cooker, you can get away with less fat); you don’t need a kitchen, or even an oven to cook with it, just a plug.
For some, it’s about time. Dr. Sarah Burgess, an anesthetist and intensive care medicine registrar explained to me that they are particularly popular with junior doctors. “I come back from a night shift, sling some food in, and wake up a few hours later to the house smelling delicious and my batch cook is done.”
Vanessa Martin just wants easy food. “I don’t particularly like cooking, I find it quite helpful to just be able to throw the stuff in in the morning, leave it on. And then I know when I’m finished working, I’ve got something to eat.”
For the trucker, Robert, it’s home cooking away from home. “It’s about doing stuff in the cab: the type of food, trying to live healthier, having something to do, making life as good as you can in the cab.” In the U.K., Robert’s way of life makes him something of an outlier, but in the U.S., slow-cooking truckers are a major subgroup. There are some 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S. who have lots of time, but no kitchen, making the slow cooker ideal for their needs. Truck company websites offer slow cooking tips (“bungee cords are a must”), while industry websites have blog posts dedicated to rating the best slow cookers for truck drivers; money-saving tip sites for truckers lead with using a Crockpot to cook dinners on the road, and countless blogs, YouTube channels, and Pinterest boards list recipes for slow cooking in trucks.
The common thread within the slow cooker community is convenience. The slow cooker is inherently domestic: Chefs have no interest in leaving their pots unattended, and the prospect of having to keep a lid clamped on them and leave them untasted and unadjusted is anathema. It’s not a terribly glamorous piece of kit. “They’re not sexy!” Megan Allen, another slow cooker fan tells me, laughing. It’s not aspirational. It might be prosaic, but the slow cooker is a purely functional device: it gets the job done.
In 2018, the close-knit Crockpot community was shaken. After a two-season-long mystery, Jack Pearson, the patriarch in the hit drama This Is Us, was — spoiler alert — revealed to have been killed by a faulty Crockpot, which had been used to make Super Bowl chili (a Midwestern slow cooker favorite). The pot’s faulty switch sparked onto a kitchen towel, ultimately igniting the whole house. The response was huge, and Crockpot’s manufacturers were forced to join Twitter to try to claw back the PR disaster. They issued a long, detailed statement, at pains to explain why the show’s dramatic storyline was entertainment rather than a public service announcement. “The safety and design of our product renders this type of event nearly impossible […] Our hope is that the team at NBC’s This Is Us will help us spread factual information regarding our product’s safety. While we know their primary mission is to entertain — something they have continued to excel in — we also feel they have a responsibility to inform.”
You can almost feel the forced smile.
Showrunner Dan Fogelman put it slightly more succinctly on Twitter. “Taking a moment to remind everyone that it was a 20-year-old fictional crockpot with an already funky switch? Let’s not just lump all those lovely hard-working crockpots together.”
The storyline actually boosted Crockpot sales in the end, and the company shrewdly put out a new advertising campaign in which Jack makes his deadly chili and asks fans to “find the ability to forgive.” To be fair to Crockpot, the stats don’t lie: Slow cookers only caused 103 fires in the U.S. between 2012 and 2015 with two nonfatal injuries, a tiny number compared to other kitchen appliances. In the same period, ranges caused 63,784 fires, and 3,834 injuries, 199 of which resulted in death. Even coffee makers caused 256 fires.
I return to my slow cooker after I have a baby. In those early months, the days are long, but time is short, and my hands are constantly tied up elsewhere. I no longer want to stand over the hob, and even if I do, my baby has just learned to roll over, but not how to roll back, and has absolutely no patience for me to stir risotto before I flip him. So I pull my slow cooker from the back of the cupboard and wipe the dust from its lid.
I start on safe ground, with the beef stew I made over and over in my barrister days. This is the sort of dish slow cookers were made for. I spend a few minutes prepping; eight hours later, I am rewarded with a handsome, glossy casserole.
But why stop there? Slow cooking’s many online forums are brimming with recipes that have achieved cult status. There’s “campfire stew” — pork cooked with beans and vegetables until it can be pulled apart. More surprisingly, there’s slow cooker doner kebab, which emulates the take-out favorite, and the intriguing slow cooker fudge.
First, I try sticky pork belly and honey chicken — other forum favorites. They both mimic dishes from Western Cantonese restaurants, takeout versions of the original. Everything goes in raw; no need to sweat vegetables or brown the meat. My slow cooker keeps everything hot without drying it out while I attempt to put the baby to bed — and then for a bit longer when bedtime becomes a battle. Finally, my husband and I sit down to dinner. Neither of these dishes tastes terribly authentic, but they are hot and flavorful, and they were a breeze to make.
Next up is a rice pudding. This, I confess, is a bit of a faff. If you make rice pudding in the oven, you needn’t touch it for hours. Whereas with a slow cooker, you have to stir it every twenty minutes, to avoid it catching and scorching, which rather defeats the point. However, the finished product is fantastic: smooth, rich, and creamy, just like the stuff of my childhood.
When Christmas approaches I cannot resist having a go at some of the other cult recipes. The so-called three-ingredient Christmas fruit cake (which unequivocally and irritatingly requires four ingredients) calls for flour, mixed dried fruit, Baileys Irish Cream liqueur, and lots of chocolate milk. It is not great. Burnt on the outside, insipid on the inside, it takes as long to cook as it does in my conventional oven (where it does not burn), and is only marginally simpler to throw together than an actual fruit cake.
It gets weirder, though everything more or less works. I put aside the questions that keep nagging at me: Why bother roasting potatoes in a slow cooker, when a hot oven — designed for roasting — does the job so well? (The potatoes are actually great: fluffy on the inside, crispy on the outside, though my husband declares them “a bit chewy.”) Then there’s the “dump cake,” which you make by pouring canned fruit, juice and all, into the cooker, topping with packet cake mix, then dotting with butter. The first one — tinned pears and ginger sponge — is merely OK; the second one — black cherries and chocolate sponge, Black Forest-style — is frankly glorious.
As a pastry chef, the recipes initially seemed vague and imprecise to me — I’m used to measuring things to the gram. But I soon realized that’s the point: With a slow cooker, you have a generous amount of wiggle room. The lack of precision is because precision is not required. To someone who isn’t used to cooking, or who is simply less uptight than me, it’s a feature, not a bug.
The Crockpot does have its culinary drawbacks: You can’t brown meat in a slow cooker, because it will never get hot enough for the Maillard reaction (the process that makes bread, or the outside of a steak, brown, bringing with it a whole whack of complex flavor). Your casserole will never reduce and thicken. For many, this is part of the deal, maybe even part of the charm. On the forums, newcomers occasionally post hybrid recipes, which have non-slow cooker steps in them. They are met with a frosty reception. It’s as if I’ve stepped into another world, where the convection oven and the hob and the microwave were never invented.
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In the beginning, the slow cooker’s limitations weren’t really that limiting. The whole idea was to use it to cook dishes that lent themselves to low heat over a long period of time, that didn’t need to be browned or really reduced. It suits cheap cuts of meat, where the cartilage and fat have time to break down and become tender and luscious, or hard, root vegetables that benefit from a low, slow cook. But for aficionados, it has since become a replacement for a whole kitchen, which means accepting various culinary compromises — or creating workarounds.
There are all sorts of hacks. You can leave the lid off to allow the liquid to reduce, or put a cloth between the lid and the pot to absorb condensation and aid browning. Many recipes call for gravy thickener or potato starch to thicken sauces. But these hacks often feel — and sometimes taste — like hacks. But some of the ideas slow cooker users have come up with are ingenious, working with the device’s attributes rather than against them. Miss South points out in her slow cooker cookbook, Slow Cooked, that they are perfect for candying fruit — a laborious process when done in the traditional way, on the stove — and for making everything from smooth, wibbly set custards, like crème caramel, to mincemeat.
The impulse to use the device to the exclusion of other kitchen gadgets can seem a bit bewildering to an outsider. “What bugs me about slow cookers,” Paula Lee wrote in Paste magazine, “is that it’s the cart before the horse. It’s the fact that recipes try to MacGyver it into doing strange tricks instead of accepting that it does one thing really well — braising tough cuts of meat — and everything else is a stunt, like using your hairdryer as a dust buster.”
Robert Booth, the truck driver, agrees. “To me, it’s just a tool. It’s not magic. Sweat your onions. Brown your meat. You’ve got to do the grunt work. At the end of the day, it’s a pot that heats up to a hot temperature. “You could do bread in it! Well, why would you?” And the food Robert produces, hack-free, is incredible. It was in a Facebook group where I first came across his “cab cuisine”: steamed pudding (strawberry and gooseberry) and boeuf bourguignon, often accompanied by a photograph of the hand-written recipe. Every evening he would post the fruits of that day’s slow cooking labors: chicken escalopes in lemon with asparagus and garlic mash, red Thai curry, and lamb tagine, all served up on his steering wheel. Other slow cooks went mad for it, awaiting his daily updates, and eager for the recipes.
Internet sharing has become a key resource for the uninitiated and aficionados of slow cookers alike. Photos, recipes, questions, and encouragement are all posted — as long as they fall within the guidelines — like most internet communities the slow cooking world is highly regulated. The groups contain a head-spinning collection of ground rules: some are unsurprising and amount to different ways of saying “don’t be rude. (“Sick” emojis will result in an instant ban.) Others remain intriguingly opaque: posts about slow cooker liners (thin plastic bags that sit in the crock and minimize washing up) are verboten. I still don’t entirely understand why, but I’m definitely too scared to post and ask.
Even the golden boy of slow cooking can fall foul of the moderator’s rules. Robert confesses to me that he has now left the Facebook group where I first discovered him, “by mutual consent,” phrasing that makes him sound like a disgraced politician, or past-it radio DJ. (It seems they wanted the recipes, but not his stories that went with them, he tells me sadly.)
For these rule-loving enthusiasts, part of the appeal of slow cooking is its heritage, its nostalgia: comforting, vintage dishes are the mainstay of most slow cooks. But it is more grist to the mill for their detractors. It has become a cliché that even today every Crockpot recipe begins with a can of mushroom soup and a packet of onion soup mix, but there is more than a kernel of truth in it.
When the Crockpot first came about, its dependence on tins and shortcuts was in direct opposition to the other culinary movements of the time: Julia Child was becoming a household name, teaching readers to debone ducks and make croissants from scratch, giving advice on batteries de cuisine and classical sauce; Alice Waters was bringing the Californian culinary philosophy of only the freshest produce into the kitchen, and fiddling with it as little as possible.
Whereas, for Crockpot evangelists, every shortcut was fair game. Even today, when we fetishize whole foods and provenance, most modern slow cooker recipes retain a penchant for jars and packet mixes. This underscores the strange niche slow cooking has consistently occupied: a desire to cook, but a willingness to get there with as little effort as possible. All of which begs the question, what is cooking from scratch? What qualifies as home cooking? Who is gatekeeping this, and why?
I’m aware of the heavy whiff of privilege in my occasional slow cooker skepticism. Using a hob or an oven is an easy and obvious alternative to me, but that isn’t true for everyone. I (often) eschew premade sauces and spice mixes because I have the time, money, and knowledge to make my own. We might all come to the slow cooker looking for convenience, but that doesn’t mean it occupies the same place in all our lives and kitchens. As Bee Wilson wrote in Consider the Fork, “Tools are not neutral objects. They change with evolving social context. A pestle and mortar was a different thing for the Roman slave, forced to pound up highly amalgamated mixtures for hours on end for his master’s enjoyment, than it is for me: pleasing apparatus with which I make pesto for fun, on a whim.”
Where does the slow cooker go from here?
Clearly, this device is no flash in the pan. Entering the market to solve a problem of the time, it’s become timeless. Its enduring appeal has converted new groups of consumers, and its popularity has boomed since the internet enabled us to share recipes, tips, and enthusiasm.
But these days, the Crockpot is not the only game in town. The Instant Pot is one of the hottest kitchen appliances out there. It’s a multi-function electric cooker that can act as a slow cooker, but also as a pressure cooker, rice cooker, steamer, yogurt maker, water bath, air-fryer, and bread machine — depending on which model you get. It does everything the slow cooker does, but also pretty much everything it doesn’t. Crockpot, naturally, has responded with a very similar multifunctional device.
In some ways, these devices are the natural heirs to the original Crockpot: efficient, compact, safe cookers, which can prepare your dinner with minimal fuss. But they are also radically different. The classic slow cooker is incredibly simple. Most have three settings — low, high, and auto; only after over a decade of ownership, did I realize what the auto setting actually does (a high initial temperature, to get things going, then a low simmer). There are no temperature settings, no gas marks — most don’t even have a timer. As soon as you add another feature, however compelling, you take away from what a slow cooker is designed to be.
I recently found my model of slow cooker in a shop. It was $32, the equivalent price it was when my mother bought it for me for Christmas 15 years ago, and little more than the $25 the original Crockpot retailed for when it was unveiled at Chicago’s National Housewares Show in 1971. You can pick up a basic model for $10 if you shop around. Now, as in the 1970s, we are facing a cost of living crisis, with fuel bills skyrocketing. The Crockpot, in keeping things simple, remains a radically affordable and accessible way to feed a family — we need it now more than ever.
As I turn on my slow cooker for the final recipe I decided to tackle for this piece (the chocolate and black cherry dump cake) I notice that the control panel is loose and, as it shifts, I can see the internal wiring. I might not be in This Is Us territory, but it’s still fair to say that after many years of service, my cooker is a goner. A few months ago I would probably have ditched the device entirely as a relic of my past. But now, I order a replacement immediately. You see, I’ve already bookmarked a recipe for slow cooker cheesecake, and I can’t wait to try it out.
Olivia Potts is a food writer and chef. After a career as a criminal barrister, she retrained in patisserie at Le Cordon Bleu. Her latest cookbook, Butter: A Celebration is published by Headline, and is out now. Her first book, A Half Baked Idea: How grief, love, and cake took me from the courtroom to Le Cordon Bleu won the Fortnum & Mason Debut Food Book Award and is published by Fig Tree, Penguin. She was the Guild of Food Writers’ Food Writer of the Year 2020.
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