The Instant Pot and the Miracle Kitchen Devices of Yesteryear
By Susan Orlean
Remember the early, heady days of the Instant Pot? Remember Amazon Prime Day of 2016—which history will certainly record as Peak Instant Pot if the history of kitchen gizmos is indeed etched into our shared chronicle of civilization—when Amazon sold two hundred and fifteen thousand of them in twenty-four hours, and would have probably sold more, if that number hadn’t represented its available inventory? Remember the Prime Days of 2017 and 2018, which were also dominated by the Instant Pot?
That, as they say, was then. Now we are gathered to mourn the Instant Pot. This is not an obituary per se, because, although the device’s parent company, Instant Brands, recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the Instant Pot is still for sale. Instead, we are bidding farewell to that innocent moment when the Instant Pot seemed like it would finally answer every culinary prayer and make cooking dinner a snap.
The graveyard of kitchen fads is wide and deep, littered with the domestic equivalent of white dwarf stars that blazed with astonishing luminosity for a moment and then deteriorated into space junk. The allure of invention in the category is understandable, since preparing meals is a Sisyphean task and anything that promises to make it faster, or easier, or better, or healthier, or more fun, is irresistible—and often, for a while, anyway, profitable for the manufacturer. Some cooking “tools” are so specific and inessential that they are hardly missed: cue the microwave s’mores maker, the pancake pen, the carrot sharpener, the hot-dog slicer, and the butter cutter. Many of these haven’t vanished completely; they have just transitioned from ubiquitous (or at least a fixture on Christmas-gift lists) to rarities, from being items you feel that you must have and will use to dust catchers that will end up front and center in your next Goodwill donation.
Other kitchen devices, such as the fondue pot, are so culturally and stylistically time-stamped that they become shorthand for an entire era and method of entertaining, long after anyone makes regular use of them. (Fondue has existed in Europe for centuries, but it didn’t become the rage here until the nineteen-sixties and seventies; then it oozed into oblivion, rendering fondue pots a flea-market staple.) There is an entire class of appliances that are aspirational: these turn something easy into something a lot harder, but with the promise that it will be better and that you will feel good for having done it. Bread machines for home use were introduced in 1986, and by the mid-nineties millions of Americans owned one and were convinced that they were going to make fresh bread every day for the rest of their lives. Apparently, they did not, and at last count there were more than ten thousand bread machines, many of them pre-owned, for sale on eBay. (“Zojirushi Bread Maker Machine BBCC-V20 Home Bakery 2 lb. This machine was purchased and used a few times by one adult—me.”) Ditto ice-cream makers. And how many of us have a George Foreman grill abandoned in the far reaches of a cabinet? A panini maker? A Crock-Pot? A sous-vide cooker?
In this vast wasteland of discarded kitchen gear, one device that has remarkable and puzzling durability is the microwave. Many people will tell you that they only use their microwaves to reheat coffee and to soften ice cream—hardly essential culinary activities—and yet more than ninety per cent of American kitchens have one. Perhaps more astonishing is the fact that, when they were first marketed for home use, in the mid-fifties, microwaves were more feared than respected and were basically regarded as countertop nuclear reactors that would cause you to mutate as you made popcorn. Over time, a best-selling book, Barbara Kafka’s “Microwave Gourmet,” and a vigorous advertising campaign by Raytheon, which manufactured what was likely the most popular microwave, seemed to placate the public and convinced people that they could actually cook with these little metal shoeboxes, and against all odds microwaves became almost as standard in the kitchen as stoves and refrigerators.
Where does the Instant Pot fit in this spotty lineage? Introduced in 2010 by a team of engineers in Canada, it had a Veg-o-Matic sort of premise: the squat multitasking vessel could perform as a pressure cooker (fast), a slow cooker (slow), a rice cooker, a steamer, a warmer, an egg cooker, a bottle sterilizer, and a yogurt maker. Word spread, and, without any advertising, it drew tens of thousands of fans; by 2017, according to CNBC, the Instant Pot Facebook group had seven hundred and fifty thousand members, and the product had more than thirty-nine thousand reviews on Amazon. Its success was both logical (reasonably priced item promises to cook fast and do a bunch of other kitchen tasks) and somewhat surprising, since its main asset, pressure cooking, had never been very popular in North America, where the technique was viewed as old-fashioned and potentially explosive. (History—and branding experts—may come to note that the word “instant” conjures something that you very much aim for, whereas “pressure” is exactly what you don’t want.)
“I was not an early adopter,” the cookbook author and Times food writer Melissa Clark told me recently. “The Times asked me to look at it to try to figure out why people loved it.” Clark owns an old-school pressure cooker (“which I never, ever use”), and she was skeptical. But she fell in love. “The things it does well, it does really well,” she said. Her love was so deep that she ended up writing an Instant Pot cookbook, “Dinner in an Instant,” which became the most popular of her forty-odd cookbooks.
So what doomed the Instant Pot? How could something that was so beloved sputter? Is the arc of kitchen goods long but bends toward obsolescence? Business schools may someday make a case study of one of Instant Pot’s vulnerabilities, namely, that it was simply too well made. Once you slapped down your ninety dollars for the Instant Pot Duo 7-in-1, you were set for life: it didn’t break, it didn’t wear out, and the company hasn’t introduced major innovations that make you want to level up. As a customer, you were one-and-done, which might make you a happy customer, but is hell on profit-and-growth performance metrics. Clark also suggests that, unlike the cooking-for-dummies promise of many culinary gadgets, Instant Pot required some actual effort. “It’s a tool for real cooks,” Clark said. “People think it’s magic, but that’s not the way it works.” Never mind that the best-selling “The Ultimate Instant Pot Cookbook,” by Simon Rush, teases its contents with a come-hither pitch about how you will make “effortless progress” in your kitchen with the device. Clark expects that it will last longer than the George Foreman grill but never ascend to microwave status—that is, if Instant Brands’ restructuring (and a hundred and thirty-two million dollars of new financing) keeps it afloat.
In the meantime, clear the countertop for a new crop, which will likely include a mini waffle iron, an A.I. toaster oven, and a smart cutting board with a high-resolution screen (so you don’t have to lift your eyes to look at a recipe while dicing and slicing). What will be the next item to get stashed beside your carrot sharpener? “Well,” Clark said carefully, “I think we’ve reached peak Air Fryer.” ♦