There are few domains of human life through which technology companies still fear to trample, but the tender and fraught bonds that hold couples together is one of them. Sometimes, however, a product emerges that unintentionally strengthens these. Countless marriages have been saved by the advent of sat-nav. The old division of labour appeared not just equitable but a model of complementary partnership – one person would drive, the other would navigate. But the recital of directions could slip with sickening ease into a barrage of mutual recriminations that laid bare toxically festering resentments:
A: Why didn’t you turn left?
B: You never told me to turn left.
A: Yes, I did! Thirty seconds ago.
B: I didn’t hear anything.
A: Of course you didn’t! You never bloody listen!
B: (slams brakes on) Probably because you never stop talking.
Now, whenever Google Maps sends us down an eccentric route, we smugly tell ourselves that, until the AIs know the shortcuts, we’re still the superior species.
I’ve discovered another gadget that looks like it could preserve relationships – it may well save mine. The Instant Pot is an electric pressure cooker whose other skills include slow cooking, steaming, sautéing and rice cooking. There is even a yogurt-making function for people who lack jobs, dependents and a sense of purpose in their lives. Though Instant Pot has been available since 2010, it broke out late last year when it became one of the top-five bestsellers in Amazon’s Black Friday sale.
Fill it up, slosh in some liquid, crank on the lid and set the timer. Food cooks much faster under pressure, so dinner arrives quickly and there is little washing up. This looks like a lifeline for me and my girlfriend who have such opposing culinary temperaments that we can only cook together if a dish requires the separate preparation of two different elements that play to our strengths. I’m meticulous to the point of insanity and have spent half a lifetime pondering the difference in millimetres between “sliced” and “finely sliced”. She thinks dicing is for wimps and that improvisation is the godmother of inspiration. A one-pot wonder, which can cook practically anything on its own, looked like the cornerstone of domestic harmony.
At first, she was sceptical of the new arrival in the kitchen and bemoaned the amount of space it would take up. We managed to have an argument over what to cook, so at least tradition was not flouted. She is a vegetarian, who disdains noodles and pasta, but I found a recipe by an Instant Pot fanatic for an acceptable stew. She sounded unimpressed.
“What does it have in it?” she asked suspiciously.
“Er, lentils and rice,” I said.
“Rice?” she said, her voice rising with incredulity. Indeed, I thought to myself, but veggers can’t be choosers.
“It’s got cheese in it,” I replied, scrabbling to locate something flavourful in the mix.
“Cheese?!” she spluttered in outrage, as though I’d suggested serving the whole damn thing on trenchers of compacted puppy.
Happily, she was won over by the perky Tex Mex concoction. It may have been sludge, but it was tasty sludge. Despite my preconceptions, Instant Pot can produce far more than slurry in shades of brown. Roast chicken works better in a pressure cooker than the oven. Brown using the sauté function. Add a couple of teaspoons of water. Sit the bird on a trivet and the steam will poach it in 25 minutes without drying it out. I even managed to bake a cheesecake, though half of it flopped into the sink as I tried to extrude the snugly fitting cake tin.
My family has history with pressure cookers. My mother used one to make salt beef, a bay leaf, an onion and a carrot bobbing alongside the brisket. This low-grade cut, riddled with connective tissue that required prolonged slow cooking, was one of the few that my ancestors could afford (brisket is a staple of African-American barbecue for the same reason).
Immigrants sustain their heritage by cooking the old favourites, even as they move up in their new world. While my great-grandmother would have hovered for hours over simmering pans, my mother sorted out her salt beef in a quarter of the time. The pressure cooker was a small but powerful symbol of the meeting of modernity and tradition. It represented assimilation and advancement into the middle class. The Instant Pot’s success in America should be no surprise. It has always prided itself as the melting pot of nations. On thousands of kitchen counters, a newer pot is now keeping small spoonfuls of the country’s soul warm.