Once their new Instant Pot is in hand, shoppers turn to online resources such as Morante’s to teach them exactly what they’re supposed to do with it. The IP purports to do a bit of everything: It pressure-cooks, slow-cooks, sautés, steams, sears, and makes yogurt, among other things. Even its biggest proponents readily admit that using one isn’t terribly intuitive, and success requires carefully following a good recipe. As a result, IP-centric collaborative resources have both taught millions of people the basics of the device and helped turn the isolation of family meal prep into a somewhat communal activity for the women (and Morante says it’s mostly women) to whom the task generally falls. “You have this back-and-forth among the community where people are encouraging each other and sharing their recipes, and I think that really helps keep people’s enthusiasm going,” Morante says.
Read: The why of cooking
Even for enthusiastic home cooks, the relentless need to feed a family can turn the task into drudgery, so the Instant Pot and its community feel like a boon to both reluctant chefs and their more skilled counterparts. Still, it’s not great that the need to make chili in a half hour is so widespread that millions of people are willing to shell out a hundred bucks for the ability to do some version of it several times a week. Even if American moms have achieved maximum productivity, the forces that require them to life-hack ever more clever ways to spend less time caring for themselves are still at work. Over the past 50 years, kitchen-gadget trends have come and gone, but their appeal in the United States has always been predicated on negotiating the expectations placed on women’s time and energy, starting with the Crock-Pot’s enormous popularity in the 1970s. Shifting cooking’s burden of vigilance off a person and onto a machine wasn’t necessary when women were largely relegated to the home during the day, but as more of them sought employment, work-arounds became necessary. Women were still expected to be the project managers of their households.
It’s not a guarantee that finding an effective way to self-optimize will result in more personal time, for mothers or anyone else, though. As the journalist Anne Helen Petersen recently explained, for Millennials, increasing efficiency often doesn’t have the positive results it promises. “The more work we do, the more efficient we’ve proven ourselves to be, the worse our jobs become: lower pay, worse benefits, less job security,” she writes. “Our efficiency hasn’t bucked wage stagnation; our steadfastness hasn’t made us more valuable.”
While some of those work-arounds are meant to accommodate modern schedules, others are meant to alleviate what Rosner says is a domestic-skill loss between generations. “In some cases, I think [these skills] were intentionally discarded by women who are like, ‘I reject this, I reject my role as the keeper of the domestic flame, and I don’t want to receive this knowledge from my mother or transmit this knowledge to my children,’” she says. But in the vacuum left by women unwilling or unable to perform domestic tasks such as cooking, no other family members rushed in to help. Instead, brands did. After Crock-Pots lost their luster, microwaves made leftovers easier to revive and frozen dinners a viable product category. George Foreman Grills helped moms prepare meat quickly while draining off the fat they weren’t supposed to be feeding their families. Vitamix blenders helped them make sure everyone was getting enough fresh fruits and vegetables.