The culinary media sometimes have an exaggerated idea of ​​how much influence we have as flavor makers. Case in point: the success of the deep fryer has little to do with us.

Until now, The Chronicle’s cooking section has never even acknowledged the existence of the machine, a tabletop appliance advertised as an easy way to fry food with just a drop of oil. Few outdated food media publications focus on deep frying in any significant way other than a few incredulous product reviews. But Americans seem to have an insatiable appetite for what is essentially a small convection oven.

For years, those who considered themselves serious about food shunned culinary gadgets, seeing them as a terrible substitute for “real” culinary skills. In his long running food show Good Food, Elton Brown popularized the idea that “Unitaskers” or fancy gadgets with just one function, may be useless.

Meredith Lawrence, a culinary instructor and food designer who has written two cookbooks on outdoor frying, sees this feeling as an extension of the elitism she experienced in her time in traditional restaurant kitchens. “I believe that if you have a single item in your kitchen that you use every day, take it. Why not? My shower washes only me,” she said. She says that most home cooks she encounters at work don’t suffer from this sense of absolutism and are instead open to using tools that just make cooking easier.

To reject the gadgets that home cooks use—with or without the approval of tastemakers—is to ignore many of the reasons people adopt technologies like the deep fryer and “single-tasking devices” like hand-held flour grinders and egg cutters. In addition to making cooking more accessible to more people, these tools also make cooking more fun.

According to market analyst NPD Group, Americans bought 25.6 million fryers from January 2020 to December 2021, and appliance-specific cookbook sales outpaced overall cookbook sales.

Mandolin, egg cutter and deep fryer, all disposable appliances.

Mandolin, egg cutter and deep fryer, all disposable appliances.

Heami Lee/Special for The Chronicle

It’s not hard to see why. When pandemic lockdowns prevented most from leaving their homes, interest in home cooking soared. On top of that, anyone who has tried to order fried food delivery can attest to the practice’s inherent drawbacks, manifested in flabby potatoes and lukewarm chicken. Why not get a device that makes frying easier, but much less horrendous and resource intensive than a tabletop fryer?

There are now many Facebook groups dedicated to sharing deep fryer tips and tricks, some of which can rival the populations of smaller towns. While you could certainly stick with fried potatoes and fish fingers, these groups are brain trusts that have demonstrated the versatility of the device through experimentation. A quick peek through one of the largest groups reveals plenty of experimentation, from Maharashtrian chaat dishes to homemade Mexican Taco Bell pizza and even eggs Benedict.

Lawrence also did a great deal of preparatory work to prove that the deep fryer is unlike any other useless device. She has developed recipes for amazing outdoor dishes such as cheesecakefor example, and wrote in her newsletter that she often uses her car several times during the day.

Robin Wilson-Beatty, a disability and sexuality educator based in North Oakland, sees kitchen appliances as an important tool for connecting her culinary ambitions with reality. She uses her combination fryer/pressure cooker to whip up cakes, fresh bread and extravagant seafood stew. It also makes it easier to lift and clean light parts. “In terms of disability, it saved me a lot of energy and made the whole process a lot less labor intensive,” she said.

There have been many innovations in kitchen design and food handling that make home cooking more accessible to people with disabilities, although it is common among people with disabilities to dismiss things like pre-cut product and plastic straws as wasteful or inherently substandard. And adaptive technologies like height-adjustable cabinets and side-opening ovens are too expensive for most and downright impossible for renters.

Then it is easier to make up the difference in smaller ways. Rosemary McDonnell-Horita, a disability integration consultant based in Berkeley, rents an apartment where the uprights are too high for her wheelchair to reach. So she cuts vegetables for dishes like homemade gyoza using a mandolin, which she balances over a mixing bowl on her lap. Her slow cooker also has a ton of uses: simple, one-pot “dump” recipes are especially useful on low-energy days.

“A lot of the skills and hacks I learned came either out of necessity or from other seniors with disabilities,” says McDonnell-Horita. “I know that people with disabilities want to eat better, cook and experiment with food, but it takes a lot of time and energy.” For her part, she is working on a cookbook for people with disabilities that will include energy ratings for recipes and recommendations for gadget use.

One of her favorites is a garlic knife specifically designed for turning and chopping garlic cloves on a cutting board. It is a must that she often gives gifts to friends on housewarming and other occasions.

As we spoke on FaceTime, Wilson-Beatty’s eyes lit up clearly as she went over everything she’s done or plans to do with her deep fryer and pressure cooker combination. “I always tell people, ‘Guess what? I did it at Ninja Foodi – as well as up to 30 minutes! I sound like I’m in an ad and I’m getting paid,” she joked.

There is a special joy from people who have found a gadget they like. Last month, Los Angeles stand-up comedian Jenny Young posted photo of her new egg cooker (complete with egg holder and top cutter) on Twitter, calling it a “wonder”. The base model of the machine, which usually sells for under $20, cooks up to six eggs at a time using steam and plays a tin song when it’s done cooking.

“I’ve only had it for a month, but I think about it all the time,” she said.

In fact, Jan grew up with a strong prejudice against specialized kitchen utensils—to her unassuming immigrant father, chopsticks were the perfect tool for multitasking and one of the few things you need in the kitchen.

“When I first started giving up on the way my parents taught me to consume or live my life, it included paying the full cost of the clothes and maybe deciding to use single-function tools,” she said. “Half joking, but really, for me it’s the height of luxury just to buy a single-function device like an egg cooker.”

The pandemic has also torn Yang’s mindset away from her former sense of absolutism. She has learned to rely on what gives her pleasure, even if there is no real justification for this. Life is too short for all this.

Within two days of this tweet, “about 10 to 20” people contacted her to say they had bought her. There aren’t enough numbers for Yang to call herself an egg influencer, but it’s a testament to the power of word of mouth nonetheless.

Soleil Ho is a food critic for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @hooleil

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