The XX Factor

Alton Brown Is Right to Scorn Single-Use Kitchen Gadgets and the People Who Buy Them

Alton Brown in New York City in 2013.

Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images

In my house, we like to say that our cooking is “rustic.” In practice, this means we are mildly lazy. We don’t peel the skin off of carrots or potatoes (nothing wrong with a little bit of texture). We come home on the late side, sit on the couch, and only start throwing something together when we realize that we meant to eat an hour ago. This insouciance may explain why my knife skills over the years have remained more “hack-at-it” than Chopped—but I’m decently confident in the sensitivity of my palate, so who cares if the onion ends up a little ragged? I’m free to enjoy cooking because I define it, most nights, as taking what’s in the fridge, hewing it into smaller pieces, and throwing it all into a butter-slick pan. The results range from alright to actually quite good.

The enemy of this ease, in my mind, is the stubbornly popular trend of “single use” kitchen gadgets: little artifacts of consumerist exploitation like avocado slicers and crepe makers, which can’t justify their existence in a kitchen that also contains a knife and a pan. My problem with these contraptions isn’t that they seduce people to spend money on objects whose only real purpose is clutter; apparently, we owe a significant slice of our economic recovery to Americans buying crap they don’t need—so, have at, my fellow citizens. My objection is more that these gizmos succeed on the premise that cooking is hard. This strikes me as a minorly dastardly cover-up, given that cooking—and thereby basic nutrition and so much simple pleasure—is not hard. 

My philosophical aversion to single-use gadgets, however, can’t rival the passion of celebrity chef Alton Brown’s. This I learned when the Daily Dot posted a video of Brown vituperating “unitaskers” and the idiots who buy them. He performs dramatic readings of the Amazon reviews for his least favorite devices. Take, for example, the “iPerfect Kitchen Meat Handling & Shredding Claws.” The review: “Very sturdy. But I’m just not sure what I bought these for. A fork will do the same job.” Here’s Brown’s response: “I think deep down you do know why you bought these. Can a fork do this?” The bespectacled Brown holds the shredders like claws and snarls at the camera. “Who doesn’t want to be Wolverine?”

Brown’s coup de grace is the “Rollie Hands-Free Automatic Electric Vertical Nonstick Easy Quick Egg Cooker.” Per the directions, he cracks two raw eggs into what looks like a thermos. Seventeen minutes later, a white tube of egg, with the vaguely shiny exoskeleton that denotes overcooking, rises from the mouth of the Rollie and flops onto Brown’s plate. “You didn’t even know you wanted something like this,” he says suggestively.

Brown’s PSA about the chicanery of unitaskers is much in the spirit of the first few pages of Google hits for “Single Use Kitchen Gadgets,” which are primarily devoted to warning people away from them. In her lovely 2012 history of kitchen implements, Consider the Fork, food writer Bee Wilson suggests that the nerves of inexperienced cooks may be behind the proliferation of what feel like the chef’s equivalent of training wheels. “Lack of confidence,” she writes, “explains the existence of the most curious measuring spoon I have ever seen. Instead of tablespoons and teaspoons, it has: a dash, a pinch, a smidgen, and a drop. Those of us who feel reasonably relaxed at the stove might have assumed that you can’t assign an exact quantity to a smidgen. We would be wrong.”

Wilson seems to agree with Brown (though more tactfully) that this kind of hand-holding can hamstring new cooks, preventing them from growing into their own at the stove. “Many things that matter in the kitchen are beyond measuring: how much you enjoy the company of those you dine with; the satisfaction of using up the last crust of bread before it goes moldy; the way an Italian blood orange tastes in February; the pleasure of cold cucumber soup on a hot evening; the feeling of having a hearty appetite and the means to satisfy it,” she writes.

I’m not saying that all unitaskers are bad. I think rice-cookers and bread-makers are genuinely useful, and I, for one, become very grateful for my lemon-juicer when my hands get dry and cracked every winter. But this industry niche, carved by under-confidence, seems designed to perpetuate the problem; who needs to learn to use a knife when you have a different slicer for every vegetable? And that’s a shame, especially considering data that suggests “millennials” are more interested in cooking than any other generation. In a 2014 study, 54 percent of young adults said they would rather make food for themselves than buy a meal, and 89 percent said they wanted to become better cooks. I sincerely wish them the self-actualizing joys of making, say, quesadillas with only a pan, a spatula, and their own foolhardy courage as guides—and not with this best-selling quesadilla-maker. What’s the worst that can happen? “Rustic” is in.