Early last fall, I decided I wanted to become a person who makes soup. I didn’t have a specific recipe in mind, but the idea seemed inexpensive, delicious, and seasonally appropriate. Making soup from scratch would be the perfect Sunday project, I told myself. At 32, I also felt ready to be a person who has Sunday projects.
But my desires did not end at soup. In my new endeavor, I had finally conjured an excuse to buy myself a colorful, enamel-covered Dutch oven. The stew pot I chose was just like those I had seen in the gorgeous Instagram photos of young, highly influential chefs such as Alison Roman and Molly Yeh. Similar ones had started to appear on the back burners of my friends’ stoves. My dream Dutch oven would cost more than $300. Not cheap, but this was for my future as a soup person, after all.
My excitement at trying a new hobby was somewhat tempered by the vague indignity of admitting that I, too, am part of a group to which luxurious lifestyle products can be predictably sold. Like many Americans in their 20s and 30s, I grew up in a household where cooking was a fact of life instead of a weekend relaxation technique. My family lived in the suburbs, my parents both worked, and our nightly options were whatever my mom managed to pull together or whatever could be purchased in a drive-through after soccer practice. When my mom was my age, she did not fantasize about spending a few hundred dollars on a high-walled, sea-blue cast-iron pot made in France.
My urge to make soup, in other words, was not a matter of familial inheritance. It came from the internet, where YouTube and Instagram have helped change how young Americans think about food, recasting it for some as a marker of progressivism and erudition. Along with those changes, the finest tools of the trade have taken on a newly prominent role in the lives of aspiring cooks. Colorful cast-iron cookware by brands like Le Creuset and the retro, brightly hued stand mixers by KitchenAid aren’t just culinary workhorses; they’ve become small markers of stability and sophistication, coveted by young people for whom traditional indicators of both often remain out of reach.
Though much has been made of young Americans’ supposed reticence to cook for themselves, they nonetheless consume all kinds of information and entertainment about cooking. “Celebrity chefs are household names, the food documentary is a veritable genre on Netflix, and Instagram is the mantelpiece where we place our careful portraits of home chef cosplay,” the critic Josephine Livingstone wrote in The New Republic in 2019. Even if you have no interest in becoming more proficient in the kitchen, you’ll probably still recognize the tools that people flock to. The logo-embossed handles of Staub’s enameled bakeware are fixtures of envy-inducing dinner-party photos on Instagram. Smeg toasters—$250—grace the marble countertops of perfectly staged HGTV kitchen renovations. Pricey All-Clad stainless-steel pans are in episodes of Top Chef and Chopped, or in Bon Appetit’s YouTube test kitchen.
The exposure has translated into booming sales. In 2014, KitchenAid, which was the first company to adapt commercial mixers for at-home use a century ago, had to build a new factory to keep up with demand. Google searches for both Dutch ovens and stand mixers have been ballooning steadily for 15 years. Websites such as Wirecutter and The Strategist, which make money through shopping recommendations, routinely alert readers when one of these trophies of domesticity goes on sale. KitchenAid’s mixers start at about $200 and can cost as much as $1,000 for more powerful versions in limited-edition finishes. Name-brand Dutch ovens typically range from $100 to $350. These are all expensive, but they’re of the same status-symbol stratum as AirPods, not a Chanel handbag or a BMW.
Many dedicated daily chefs still buy these products, but the companies that market them have stumbled into a newfound appeal to people with more of a casual curiosity about cooking. Nate Collier, Le Creuset’s marketing director, says that his company has noticed the shift most acutely in the past few years. Le Creuset has always served enthusiastic home cooks—its founders invented the process by which cast iron is covered in nonstick enamel in the 1920s—and in previous generations, that meant they were more focused on the activity as a functional part of everyday life. “Now it’s ‘I want to try and make donuts this weekend, because I’ve never made donuts at home,’” Collier says. “That might be the only thing they cook for a month, but that’s pretty ambitious.”
Marketers love to talk about how Millennials want “experiences, not things,” which belies the fact that experiences usually require tools. The rapid expansion of “fast casual” chains that now dominate much of daily American dining, from Chipotle barbacoa bowls to Sweetgreen kale salads, means that Americans with disposable income now have more ways to spend it on prepared food than ever before. They also have less time to cook for themselves. For them, cooking might look more like the occasional fulfillment of a kitchen fantasy than putting dinner on the table every night.
Once people figure out how to use their new toys, they turn to social media to share the results. Instagram hashtags like #kitchenaidmixer and #lecreuset contain hundreds of thousands of posts with carefully photographed cookies, roast chickens, and crusty boules, almost all posed in or near the tools that ushered them into existence—proof that their owners have made an investment of money, time, and effort, and they now have something delicious to show for it.
Making a perfect Bolognese lasagna might seem like an odd form of clout-chasing, but most people can’t party like they’re 25 forever. The hangovers get worse, and you get sick of eating takeout. At a certain point, people want to start signaling that they’ve evolved as humans, and cooking is the perfect cultural signifier for the job.
Many of today’s most popular cookware brands have been making products very similar to the ones they sell now for decades. But if you had to design a line of cookware to appeal directly to these young, somewhat affluent cooks—unsure of their skills but keenly aware that they’d like to develop them and share the results—it would probably look a lot like Great Jones. The brand was launched in 2018 by Sierra Tishgart and Maddy Moelis, childhood best friends then in their late 20s. It sells a full suite of cookware for $395 and an enamel-covered Dutch oven that retails alone for $145.
Tishgart, who wrote about culinary culture at New York magazine until co-founding Great Jones, says that the line started because she encountered the same problem as a lot of people her age: She had begun to grow out of IKEA-grade products and wanted to buy new stuff without spending $300 on a single piece of cookware. “It was so confusing and exceedingly expensive to get nice things,” she remembers. “I was really just trying to say, ‘Okay, I have a small kitchen. What do I actually need and why, and how can I—buying this for myself—personally invest in some nice things that make me proud and excited to cook?’”
Tishgart’s quest for nice things marks an evolution in the cookware market. Certain types of expensive home goods have always been linked to the success and stability of young adults in America, but the acquisition of those goods wasn’t always an occasion unto itself. Instead, pieces of expensive domestic equipment have long been given as gifts to mark major life events, such as marriage or a first home. For middle-class and wealthy Americans in previous generations, marriage and homeownership were things that first occurred in their early-to-mid-20s, which meant that many people received high-quality kitchen tools in very early adulthood. KitchenAid told me that wedding registries have been one of the company’s most significant small-appliance sales drivers for decades. Collier says that Le Creuset has long had similar success entering homes via joyous occasions.
In the past few years, however, Collier has noticed something else: While gifts are still a big part of Le Creuset’s business, more young people than ever are buying the company’s products for themselves. This lines up with broader demographic trends: Middle-class and wealthy young people are getting married later, buying homes later, and living in smaller dwellings, thereby changing or delaying the milestones that would have filled up their cabinets on someone else’s dime. That’s forced some of those people to stock their own adult kitchens, often because they need to replace the inexpensive nonstick pots and pans—frequently coated in potentially harmful chemicals they would also like to leave behind—they’ve been lugging from apartment to apartment since college.
“Our core demographic at this point is Millennial women, and I think a lot of these individuals were previously waiting until they got married to get nice cookware,” Tishgart notes. “I remember thinking, I want nice things, but do I have to wait for that stage of my life? That feels preposterous.”
Young Americans are sometimes described as unwilling or unable to grow up; it might be more accurate to say they’re growing up differently. The traditional markers of adult achievement have yet to click into place for many people in their 20s and 30s, which has required them to reimagine what stability in America might now look like. A dream-kitchen renovation is out of reach for renters, but they can buy a few good tools and have their friends over for dinner. Maybe more important, they can show the world that they’re skilled and sophisticated enough to entertain.
It’s no mistake that these status symbols—both the cookware and the food itself—are tremendously photogenic. Young people might want to stock their kitchens, but many of them also want to post, and it’s possible to kill both those birds with one heavy-bottomed pan. On Instagram, “the conversation around food and cookware in general is so big,” says Collier. And that’s great for Le Creuset. “Visually, we love that, because of our colors and because of the way food looks on there.” Instagram is where young Americans go to perform domesticity, which has created a perfect marketing opportunity for brands that already make certain kinds of home goods. Fine knives and Cuisinart food processors are just as helpful in putting delicious, impressive food on the table, but you don’t see them as much. They’re just not as cute.
For me, things didn’t go exactly as planned. Nervous that I would fail to become a long-term soup person, I went with a less expensive alternative to the Le Creuset of my dreams: an $80 Tramontina Dutch oven in a beautiful shade of turquoise, which made me just as excited to post pictures of my kitchen adventures online. But a little more than a year in, I have made almost nothing aesthetically pleasing. I’m a messy cook, and nothing photographs well under the artificial light of dinnertime. Braised meat mostly looks wet. The avgolemono soup I chose as my first project is just lots of pale-yellow ingredients.
What I didn’t expect, though, is how much having a few high-quality tools would improve my experience of cooking overall—so much so that any aesthetic payoff now feels incidental. As it turns out, professionals and dedicated hobbyists have been using enameled Dutch ovens for generations because they work well. They distribute heat evenly, they brown foods well, they can be transferred to the oven without fear, and they clean up easily. Stand mixers really do make it less physically onerous to bake lots of recipes. In a consumer market full of innovation for the sake of miserable novelty, it’s a relief to spend a few hours a week with something that’s not trying to connect to my Bluetooth headphones, or that won’t be technologically irrelevant in 18 months.
My new hobby might not yield as many photos as I’d secretly—and maybe shamefully—anticipated, but what I have lacked in content, I’ve made up for in a newfound unwillingness to shut up about the things I’ve cooked. Apparently, the fancy-pot bug can also be spread that way. A few weeks ago, I received a text message from my mother, the world’s least enthusiastic cook, who had sworn off the activity entirely when she entered retirement. She sent me a screenshot of a blue Dutch oven similar to my own, with the question: “Do I need one of these?” She said she’d like to make some soup.