Culinary Curiosities: History of the Slow Cooker
The slow cooker is having a moment. How is it that this appliance of yore, the darling of church basement suppers and potlucks everywhere, is growing in popularity? Nowadays the ‘70s harvest golds and avocado greens of slow cookers have been replaced by gleaming stainless steel and have pride-of-place on kitchen counters. Could it be a yearning for the promise of fast, convenient cookery from days gone by? Or perhaps the sizzling sales of multicookers like Instant Pots have encouraged home cooks to take a look in the pantry and dust off mom’s old crock pot.
It was a mother who inspired Irving Naxon to invent the first slow cooker, back in 1936. Tamara Kaslovski Nachumsohn regaled her son with stories about how, in the old country, her mother would put a pot of cholent, a traditional Jewish stew, in the oven of the local bakery before sundown on Friday. The residual heat of the massive oven cooked the bean, vegetable and meat dish overnight, allowing the family to have a hot meal on Saturday without violating the laws against cooking on the Sabbath. Naxon developed an appliance with an insert and housing with an enclosed heating element that cooked food safely, for hours, at a low temperature right on the kitchen counter. The Naxon Beanery was patented in 1940 and Naxon sold it mostly to luncheonettes and diners. In the 1970s he sold it to Rival Manufacturing, who promptly rebranded it the Crock Pot and began selling it with great success in 1972.
The Crock Pot was marketed to the working woman of the 1970s who could put chopped ingredients in before work and come home to a hot meal for the family at night. The “set it and forget it” mentality appealed to busy cooks. It was easy, convenient, and its low-and-slow method of cooking was perfect for tough, inexpensive cuts of meat. It was also billed as energy efficient, using about as much power as a 75 watt bulb, which during the energy crisis of the 1970s was another factor in its favor. Sales of the Crock Pot and dozens of imitators peaked in the 1970s and began to drop in the 1980s when another newfangled cooking appliance, the microwave, appeared. The last 15 years have seen a new uptick in slow cooker sales, spurred in part, perhaps, by the multicooker.
You might think that multicookers like the Instant Pot would replace the aging slow cooker. A multicooker works as a slow cooker, rice cooker, pressure cooker and can easily warm, steam and saute. A slow cooker is, well, a slow cooker. It can’t brown meats or steam vegetables or warm up leftovers like a multicooker. Because of the pressure seal, a multicooker can cook fast, saving time and energy. A slow cooker cooks ... slowly. Fans of multicookers have discovered ways to pop popcorn, make yogurt and even hard boil (actually, steam) eggs in short order. And yet, slow cookers have their die-hard fans as well, and they are growing in number.
2017 saw a number of slow cooker cookbooks hit the shelves, some from prominent chefs and celebrities like Hugh Acheson and Martha Stewart. Blogger Stephanie O’Dea vowed to use her slow cooker every day for a year in 2008 and has since published three cookbooks. Now every cook can find a cookbook to suit his or her needs whether vegan, paleo, five-ingredient, Indian, Tex-Mex, and so on. Inventive cooks go beyond the usual winter-warming soups and stews and use their slow cookers for breakfast (overnight oatmeal, granola and quiche), desserts, breads, and holiday meals. Don’t be too quick to put your slow cooker away in the summer—think how it can cook your dinner and keep your kitchen cool while you relax on the patio.
There have been some spirited debates at my house regarding which is better, the slow cooker or the multicooker. While my partner loves the versatility of his Instapot, I remain stubbornly in favor of my slow cooker. The Instapot is fast and pressure sealed, but I prefer the hours-long anticipation, heightened by the scent of whatever is patiently simmering in the crock pot. What’s old is new. Again.
Julie Brown-Micko was raised on sugar cereals and lots of hamburger casseroles, but survived and thrived in a Le Cordon Bleu culinary program. A sometime writer, candy maker and pastry chef, she’s happiest combining her love of food and writing. Her work has appeared in restaurants such as The Bayport Cookery and publications such as Minnesota Monthly and Foodservice News.