There are a lot of fundamental problems with existence, but among the most pressing is that you need to feed yourself three times a day, basically every day, for, like, 80 years. If you’re an American woman, the stakes of food preparation are likely to be even higher. Statistically, you’ll probably get married and have at least one kid, and although your family will probably need you to get a full-time job, you’ll also be saddled with the majority of the domestic labor, of which food acquisition and preparation is an omnipresent component.
Lately, women’s trendiest ally in this battle is a kitchen-dwelling robot pod called an Instant Pot. The Instant Pot’s massive popularity—Amazon sold 300,000 units of the product during 2018’s Prime Day sale alone—is based on a simple promise. If users insert some ingredients, press some buttons, and pay careful attention to the details of a recipe, then out comes a hot meal of fresh ingredients, big enough to feed a family, in less time than traditional cooking methods take.
By inspiring hope for the automation of the domestic, the Instant Pot joins a lineage of kitchen gadgetry that includes the Crock-Pot and the microwave—consumer sensations that attempt to retrofit traditional women’s work into modern women’s lives. But like its predecessors, the Instant Pot can only do so much, even if those abilities include making everything from bone broth to cheesecake. While the Instant Pot might be the most sophisticated fix yet for Americans’ dwindling opportunity to prepare their own food, it can’t address the bigger problem of where that time and skill went in the first place, and how much more stands to be lost.
The Instant Pot is the right product at the right time, and by all indications, the vast majority of people who own one seem to adore it. Devotees of the device—often abbreviated as the “IP” online—sing its praises on social media, and Facebook in particular has been fertile ground for its word-of-mouth spread. When I asked around on my account, I expected mixed reactions; nothing is universally beloved on social media. But many people reported using their pots multiple times a week, and almost all of them were doing so to feed spouses and kids. A friend from high school, usually a bit of a curmudgeon, called his family’s Instant Pot “fairly amazing.” Another, the spouse of a college co-worker, said she uses hers to meal-prep for her household of 12. One guy said he and his wife were considering buying a third, smaller IP because they got so much use out of their first two.
Even Kaitlin Garske, a social-media manager and food writer from Michigan who wrote a popular article about not being impressed with her own Instant Pot, can see the allure for others. “I have friends who don’t cook who got one for Christmas, and they were so happy to just put chicken in it and walk away,” she says.
That act of walking away seems like the pot’s most consistent draw. You don’t have to stir anything or monitor your food’s progress while using one, so although pressurizing and depressurizing it means many IP recipes actually don’t cut that much time off their traditional alternatives, they change how that time can be spent. According to the New Yorker food correspondent and kitchen-gadget aficionado Helen Rosner, that’s where the Instant Pot has an advantage over stove-top pressure cookers, which have been around for decades, especially in India and the Middle East. “You have to stand in the kitchen with those, and know how to use them, and monitor their behavior,” she says. With the Instant Pot, you just “set it and forget it.”
The pull of domestic multitasking is strong for American women. A recent study found that reducing time spent on household chores and performing multiple tasks at once are the main ways working mothers in the United States are able to dedicate time to their children, and the Instant Pot is optimized for efficiency not just in its use, but also in its acquisition. Amazon was long the only place to buy an Instant Pot, and according to Coco Morante, the author of an Instant Pot cookbook and founder of a half-million-member IP Facebook group, Amazon discounts are still such a huge sales driver that she can see them reflected in her membership. “Whenever there’s an Amazon sale, there’s a whole new crop of thousands of people who are excited about it,” she says. Buying an Instant Pot has never required price comparisons or shopping around: You get the sale alert, you add the item to your cart, it’s in your home in two days.
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.
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.
Now we have Instant Pots. The device seems tailor-made to address the symptoms of a laundry list of modern problems. In addition to having tight schedules, Millennials distrust the packaged foods of their youth, and many of the time-saving gadgets of the past have fallen out of favor with them—even microwaves. But if the Instant Pot is a good compromise between being overburdened at work and wanting to cook with fresh ingredients, it’s still a compromise. It doesn’t address the fact that work has seeped into an ever-larger portion of Americans’ waking hours, taking time and energy away from the basic tasks of familial maintenance, or that a lot of people would rather have a little more time to take care of their families or a more helpful spouse instead of another gadget to do it for them.
Maybe the air fryer will fix those things. I hear those are supposed to be hot for 2019.