From humble to high tech, a slow cooker history
From a bean pot to ubiquitous Crock-Pot, here's one appliance with staying power.
All of a sudden, everyone's a foodie. In the modern day culinary mess of sous-vide machines and high-end blenders, it's easy to forget the work-a-day slow cooker. But then at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, device-maker Belkin announced its plan to extend its Internet-connected WeMo product line to Jarden's small appliance lineup, including slow cooker staple CrockPot. We'll examine what it means to bring your slow cooker online when the Crock-Pot WeMo Smart Slow Cooker debuts this spring. For now, given that you might be using a more traditional model this weekend (and today also being the last day of Slow Cooker Month), it seems like a good time to consider the slow cooker's humble, delicious origins.
In 1952, Wisconsin-based appliance manufacturer West Bend introduced a small, countertop appliance called the Electric Bean Pot. The original model featured a ceramic bean pot on top of a heating element, which cooked beans in much the same way as an electric range. It was a small step toward the slow-cooker we know it today, but not a huge departure from cooking beans on the stove. Was this the first ancestor of the slow-cooker as we know it today? Hardly.
On May 21, 1936, Irving Naxon, a prolific inventor, applied for a patent for a cooking device that would not only be portable, but would provide solutions for many of the complaints issued about previous models, namely uneven heating. It was to be an integrated appliance, with the cooking vessel (the crock) housed inside a casing that also contained the heating element, allowing the heat to distribute more evenly.
Naxon received the patent for this appliance in January 1940, but he credits his inspiration to his grandmother (nee Nachumsohn), who told him about a dish she made growing up in Lithuania -- cholent -- and how she would cook it after hours at a local bakery, using the fading heat of the bakery's oven to cook the dish overnight. By integrating the crock inside of the heating unit, Naxon captured that "low and slow" cooking process and made it accessible to the mid-20th century cook.
Naxon brought his device, the Naxon Beanery, to market in the 1950's. In 1970, the Rival Manufacturing acquired Naxon and, in 1972, rebranded the Beanery as the Crock-Pot. The appliance retailed for about $25, a price that has held steady, even with inflation. Certainly, you can buy more expensive slow-cookers now, but you can also go to your local superstore and, depending on the brand or model, buy a slow cooker for $25, if not less. In its debut, the Crock-Pot came in such classic 1970s colors as copper, harvest gold, and avocado, and it also included its own Crock-Pot specific cookbook.
The times, they are a'changin'
It's hard to talk about most modern small appliances without talking about the cultural climate at the time of their inception. This is particularly the case with slow-cookers.
Slow-cookers, namely Crock-Pots, enabled women to maintain some semblance of work-home balance in the post-War era, a feature that became increasingly attractive as women entered the American workforce. Women could work a full day and have a piping hot dinner ready for their families that required very little effort. It was an attractive concept then and, while the expectations are different and gender roles less concrete, the convenience still makes the slow cooker an attractive concept today. In fact, slow-cookers have become a staple of the single adult's kitchen as much as they ever were for a family.
Convenience isn't the only thing that solidified the Crock-Pot's position in our kitchens, however. While the ability to make one-pot meal while you work is fantastic, the Crock-Pot's efficiency was a particular asset during the oil crisis of 1973 and the energy crisis of 1979. A Crock-Pot pulled about the same amount of energy as an incandescent lightbulb, far less than the electricity required to run a traditional electric oven for any substantial amount of time. So while women may have fallen in love with the Crock-pot for the convenience it afforded, America fell in love with it for the money it saved.
For the Crock-Pot brand in particular, its sales went up and down through the 1970s. The company sold about 80,000 units in 1972, exploded to around 3.7 million units in 1975, and then tapered down to nearly 1.3 million units once copy-cats entered the market. At the market's peak, about 40 different companies were making some kind of slow cooker, but that also faded by the 1980s, perhaps coincidentally around the same time the microwave oven became popular. As of 2002, though, a Betty Crocker Kitchens study found that 80.6 percent of US homes owned a slow cooker.
Making culinary strides
Ownership of the Crock-Pot brand changed hands over the years. The Holmes Group bought Rival in 1999, and Holmes, itself owned by Berkshire Hathaway, was then sold off to Jarden in 2005. The product itself has of course changed in that time as well. One major innovation was the the removable crock, an improvement over the integrated crocks in the first models which were hard to clean. The removable crock also made your dish portable. Capitalizing further on this idea of dinner-to-go, many manufacturers have released models that include rubber seals and locking mechanisms that keep the lid sealed tightly onto the crock for spill-free transport. This made an already convenient appliance even more, as you could cook a meal and take it to your potluck in the same dish, saving you extra clean-up.
Recently, Crock-Pot introduced a customizable slow cooker option that allows you to special order a unit with pictures of your family, dog, or favorite sports team plastered all over. This may be neat, but it's hardly the tech change we're hoping to see in the future. The brand has also released a lineup for those who entertain frequently or aren't so into the one-pot-meal idea -- the Hook-up Entertaining System. This system allows you to plug several Crock-Pots together to form a veritable conga line of slow cookers.
The brand later introduced a self-stirring slow cooker, though this feature would only be helpful with certain applications and could be a real nuisance in others. They also have a model that uses what Crock-Pot calls "smart cooking" technology which enables you to pick your protein and set the time you would like for it to be done cooking. The Crock-Pot turns itself on automatically and will have your meal cooked and ready by your specified time. Other slow cooker brands such as Ninja or Hamilton Beach have imbued their slow cookers with features like built-in temperature probes and a wider range of cooking settings.
So what's next?
Of all the feature add-ons over time, bringing the slow cooker online might be the most surprising. The Crock-Pot WeMo Slow Cooker will likely be the first connected slow cooker when it comes to market this March. Whether it will be the last one with built-in Wi-Fi is the big question. Part of the appeal of slow-cooking is that it's basically hands-off once you get the ingredients in the crock. But once you can monitor other devices in your home remotely, maybe we'll come to expect that from everything. If connected devices ever do attain that ubiquity, Jarden and Belkin will have elevated the humble slow cooker to a leading technology experiment.