Thank you, amazing, nourishing slow cooker. Let's eat!
If there’s no statute of limitations on grief — and there isn’t, or there shouldn’t be — let us then light a candle for one Irving Naxon, who died Sept. 22, 1989, at age 87.
That guy! You know that electronic news scroller in New York City’s Times Square, the one above the giant Walgreens? He invented the technology. Some sort of remote control typing mechanism that probably you’ve never heard of or used? He invented that, too.
Then there’s this, from a brief obituary in the Sept. 25, 1989, Chicago Tribune: “Services for Irving Naxon, 87, inventor of the electric Crockpot, will be held at 1 p.m. Monday.”
“Inventor of the electric Crockpot” — if that’s not worthy of a first-sentence mention in the obituary, then nothing is.
Because of Mr. Naxon, a million parents can feel smug, or at least less guilty, on the way home from piano lessons: “Kids! No sub-par, drive-through burritos for us today! We’re having a home-cooked dinner!”
Honestly? There’s probably grumbling from the back seat, whining of the “but we waaaaaant burritos” variety, and parent in the driver’s seat must white-knuckle the steering wheel, resisting an urge to call the little ingrates out on their ingratitude. This is what families are supposed to do, OK? Have home-cooked meals together!
But who has time? Who has the motivation to assemble anything beyond a take-out order at the end of work and school and practice and lessons and quadratic equations and library books and one lost shin guard and the cat might be sick and that rash looks weird and forgot to call the swamp cooler guy and drifting dunes of laundry. Who has the time?
The slow cooker, that’s who (if we’re anthropomorphizing, and we are because it’s practically a member of the family by now). It receives a spill of ingredients in the morning rush, cooks them all day long and dispenses a warm, tasty dinner that’s as good as a hug.
This might explain their renaissance in the last several years, a Pinterest-fueled devotion that could be interpreted as borderline religious or, depending on the ingredients, cult-like: Nothing gets between me and my slow cooker.
“It’s like cast iron pans, what goes around comes around,” explained Lee Mathis, owner of Decadence Gourmet (decadencecheesecakes.com) in Grand Junction. “People find out you don’t need all this new-fangled equipment, just a good old slow cooker.”
Now, 81 percent of U.S. homes contain a slow cooker, according to market researchers The NPD Group. In the 12 months ending in June 2015, about 12.6 million slow cookers were sold in the United States, a number up 4 percent from the same time period ending June 2014. That’s about $334.1 million in slow cookers.
And, according to NPD Group, about 18 percent of American households now use a slow cooker in a typical two-week period, a number that grew from 9 percent in 1985. Plus, those babies now go on sale for something like $7 on Black Friday!
Which is to say, have you looked at Pinterest lately? At the slow cooker recipes? Wow. Just wow.
The Food Network’s own Sandra Lee, she of the semi-homemade white chocolate polenta (don’t ask), advises making cheesecake in a slow cooker. It only gets three stars, though. Martha Stewart herself proposes slow cooker bacon jam (marthastewart.com/326881/slow-cooker-bacon-jam) that sounds a little like chutney and a lot like awesome.
Yeast rolls, lasagna, baked potatoes — put ‘em in the slow cooker!
Naxon, it should be mentioned, merely wanted to cook cholent, a traditional Jewish stew. His daughter Lenore told reporter Alix Wall that when her father was young, his mother, Tamara, would tell him about growing up on a shtetl in Lithuania. Her mother would send her to the bakery on Friday mornings with a crock full of cholent ingredients so that it would be ready to eat on Shabbat.
Lenore Naxon told Wall, “He heard the story, and thought ‘How can I create something with a slow-cooking heating element all the way around it, and is self-contained?’”
His May 21, 1936, patent application for “cooking apparatus” contained this explanation: “In one respect the apparatus shown in the present embodiment is comparable with a class of cooking devices now known to the public as electric roasters. However ... it will readily become manifest that numerous cooking applications other than mere roasting maybe carried out with my invention by virtue of the features of novelty incorporated therein.
“One object in my invention is to provide an improved cooking means capable of meeting the diversified phases in the general art of cooking, such as baking, searing, scalloping, steaming, stewing and so forth.”
Preach, Irving Naxon! U.S. patent US 2187888 A, granted to Irving Nachumsohn (his original family name), was published Jan. 23, 1940, and he proceeded to sell the Naxon Beanery to luncheonettes and coffee shops. It did not set the world on fire, but sold steadily (the Rival Co. bought Naxon Utilities Corp. in 1970 and rebranded the Beanery as the Crock-Pot in 1971).
Anyway, a delightful ad unearthed from the April 1950 edition of The Rotarian magazine proclaims it “FOR MEN WHO ENJOY COOKING!” and advises “Be the first in your circle of friends to serve them with dishes that are delightfully different.”
We call that unintentional foreshadowing, if you’ve been to a church potluck in the past 40 years.
Slow cookers aren’t exactly for haute cuisine. You’re not going to walk into Le Bernardin restaurant and say, “Do you have those little sausages swimming in Kraft barbecue sauce?”
However, Suzanne Hanzl, owner of Tourné (tournecooking.com) and Daily Sentinel food columnist, said that slow cookers can be incorporated into haute cuisine, “especially when considering the length of time is takes to break down cartilage or connective tissues in meats.
“Short ribs, chuck roasts and meats of the like require long cooking times in order to break down the connective tissues which result in tender flavorful meat. The use of the slow cookers can free up oven space and provide an alternative to traditional methods.”
So there’s that. Really, though, slow cookers are about doing one job well: “Cook at a steady, relatively low temperature,” said Wayne Smith, an assistant technical professor of culinary arts at Western Colorado Community College.
“I attribute the devotion to slow cookers to the transformative power of slow cooking,” Smith said. “Braising and stewing are wonderful cooking methods that create new flavors from the blending of ingredients. Think about this, you could combine beef, carrots, celery, bell pepper and black pepper. If you stir fry them quickly each ingredient will retain its texture and individual flavor. If you stew them, the flavors will meld and the textures are transformed like Obi-Wan Kenobi — the ingredients are still there, but not in the same way they used to be. I guess you could call stews and braises ‘The Eternal Jedi Knights of the Kitchen.’”
And all thanks to a slow cooker! But in all seriousness, The Force aside, what could be more rewarding than a hot bowl of stew at 6 p.m. on a miserable Tuesday, all for maybe 10 minutes of effort in the morning and stopping by the store on the way home for a hot loaf of French bread?
It’s like this, Smith explained: “Wake up, put ingredients in magic pot, turn it on, go to work and take it all day from the man, go home (house smells like meat potpourri!), eat dinner. Use saved time to improve the world: kiss dog, hug kids, prepare taxes, refine plans to invade Bermuda for two weeks next February.”
A slow cooker, then, can rank right up there with a therapist’s couch or a votive-lined, bubble-filled bathtub and a glass of cabernet. Food is not just food, because nourishment is not just about the stomach.
“Food cannot take care of spiritual, psychological and emotional problems, but the feeling of being loved and cared for, the actual comfort of the beauty and flavour of food, the increase of blood sugar and physical well-being, help one to go on during the next hours better equipped to meet the problems,” wrote Edith Schaeffer in “The Hidden Art of Homemaking.”
We are not, Mathis explained, the people we used to be, with someone home during the day and the smell of fresh cookies when we walk in the door. The slow cooker, however, can give us a close approximation of the world that was, appeasing guilt caused by a sense that we should be People Who Cook, now enhanced with the righteousness of whole ingredients and eating sustainably and succoring the children and all that.
A slow cooker simmering away quietly on the kitchen counter all but proclaims, “TODAY YOU WILL BE NOURISHED!”
Plus, Smith added, there is the added bonus of being halftime hero with that Velveeta and Ro-Tel dip.
So, toss it all in the slow cooker, set it to low and plug it in. Something warm and satisfying will be waiting in six to eight hours.