Now We Are Cooking Without Gas

I promise this has something to do with computers, software, and my usual jibber-jabber, but I want to talk about cooking. And before I get to that, I need to preface this by acknowledging my use of an unfortunate premise: stoves. I started writing this in September, well before this became a bizarre and fracturing issue. A better writer would have canned the whole thing or found a better metaphor; instead, I procrastinated until that particular culture war fizzled out. Enough throat clearing.

We recently bought a new range for our kitchen which, as it turns out, is a dizzying task. I would have preferred an induction model, but nearly all of them have capacitive touch controls which are terrible — worse than physical knobs in almost every way. I just want to turn a dial to change the temperature, not poke at a barely responsive slab of glass. And we thought we had done it: we thought we had found the sole perfect induction model in the showroom. But it turned out to be a standard electric stove. Oh, well; put it on the truck, I guess.

In my heart of hearts, what I really wanted was a gas stove. Unfortunately and tautologically, they are fuelled by flammable gas which, when burned, releases toxic fumes into a home. This can be mitigated by having a venthood that properly exhausts fumes to the outdoors, which I do not have, but if I did I would need to face the guilt and self-flagellation for adding to the consumption of petroleum products when I know better. I do not want a gas stove in this form, but I do want the effect of one in my kitchen. I want to cook with fire.

At its core, a gas stove is a fantastically simple invention. A combustible material is fed in, it is set alight, and a valve in the middle controls how big the flame is. This sounds imprecise in the sense that it is difficult to hit a specific heat output, but it offers a unique level of control to the cook. It rarely matters exactly how many thermal units are being produced so long as you can change that factor quickly. Perhaps as important, fire can make food taste different. You can toast items directly on the iron grate. When you toss food in the pan, it gets kissed by the flame, burning sugars and oils and alcohol. In Cantonese and with the assistance of enough heat, it is known as wok hei, though achieving this requires a more powerful burner than most home stovetops can produce. But it cannot happen without fire.

An induction stove offers much of the same level of control and is a triumph of efficiency. Instead of placing a heat source near the pan’s base, the electromagnetic field in each “burner” causes the pan itself to get hot. It offers the best conversion of energy to cookery of any stovetop type and provides just as much control as a gas burner. It produces no excess heat; the only reason the cooktop’s surface would be warmed is from the heat absorbed by and reflected off the pan. It is a more intelligent, more future-forward way of cooking.

But I still want fire. There is something alluring about that simplicity — something primal. It sparks something inside me that makes anything electric feel sterile. Yes, the cooktops are doing the same job, but not in the same way.

There are a handful of logical arguments for preferring a gas cooktop over electric, and the degree to which they matter will vary from person to person. But, for what it is worth, I have used an electric stovetop all my life and have learned how to compensate for its unique qualities, even as something of an enthusiastic home cook. I often use a wok, toast tortillas in a cast iron pan, and roast peppers under the broiler instead of directly against a flame. It is not exactly the same, of course, but nor is it so different that it is ruinous to whatever I am cooking. That may be different for you. Food is deeply personal and, for me, it is about maximizing what I have and not trying to always hit a goal of being the best of something, which I have long regarded as unobtainable.

Many of the reasons people prefer a gas cooktop seem more emotional than logical. I am certainly in that camp — just look at most of the arguments I am making above. It is exciting to work with fire; it makes you feel like more of a chef, even if all you are doing is boiling an egg. When Alec Watson — of the delightful Technology Connections YouTube channel — replaced his gas stove with an electric model, he found the electric one often boils water faster than the unit he replaced, but it feels slower. “When you turn on a gas stove,” Watson says, you get the “tick-tick-tick whoomph, and you get a flame, and you can see and hear that flame”. An electric stove has a glowing red visual clue that something is happening, while an induction burner shows almost nothing. There is no palpable excitement in this kind of efficiency. And I do think that is a problem.

I do not think we should dismiss emotional arguments out of hand. It seems obvious to prefer rational arguments rooted in facts and logic, but our enjoyment of using something often comes just as much from how good it feels as how well it works. That applies to stoves, but it is increasingly true across the board, for almost anything you can think of.

I promised earlier to relate this to computers; thank you for sticking with me. In an infamous 2011 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, venture capitalist and Mosaic browser inventor Marc Andresseen observed that “software is eating the world”:

More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services—from movies to agriculture to national defense. Many of the winners are Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurial technology companies that are invading and overturning established industry structures. Over the next 10 years, I expect many more industries to be disrupted by software, with new world-beating Silicon Valley companies doing the disruption in more cases than not.

Twelve years later, Andresseen’s forecast seems more true than ever and, also, a little bit like a threat. Not because of how unreliable and frustrating software often is — at least, not solely for that reason — but because electronic things often feel inferior despite their manifold advantages. For as clever as the world is becoming, it can also be unsatisfying.

It does not have to be.

Unfortunately, explaining how is difficult as what we find delightful is wholly subjective. You may have reached this part of the article entirely disagreeing with what I have written so far. Maybe you find something charming about a stovetop that somehow heats pans but not the surface using magnets. But that efficiency leaves me cold, in much the same way as compact discs are less delightful than vinyl records despite being more accurate reproductions of the source audio.

Sometimes, a sense of charm comes in the form of the old, the familiar, and the nostalgic. Consider the common practice of mimicking film in most movies shot digitally, or analogue audio effects like crackle and tape warp in some new music. In real estate listings, older houses with original details are marketed as “character homes”.

All of this can make it seem as though careful and precise engineering is the opposite of delight, but that would be an oversimplification and, arguably, untrue. When Ferdinand Piëch ran the Volkswagen Group, he pushed for some radically over-engineered models, any of which would elicit excited giggles from a mechanically inclined person. If you want to get a little upmarket, there is true joy in using a perfectly assembled Leica for even the simplest photograph, an image which will have a finesse unlike anything else. The key difference, I think, is that efficiency and precision must be in the service of something more visceral. I think one moment from the introduction of the Apple Watch is a good example of where that was not successful.

Tim Cook:

We set out to make the best watch in the world — one that is precise. It is synchronized with the Universal Time Standard. It’s accurate within plus or minus 50 milliseconds.

Wow, that sure sounds great. So why has it felt underwhelming every time I have seen that clip? I think John Gruber’s explanation gets to the heart of the matter:

The funny thing about this marketing angle is that it rings utterly hollow to serious watch people. $30 quartz watches generally keep very accurate time — much more accurately than mechanical watches that cost tens of thousands of dollars. The gold standard for quality watch movements is COSC certification — a series of tests administered by the Swiss Official Chronometer Testing Institute. To be COSC-certified, a mechanical watch need be accurate only to -4/+6 seconds per day. Apple is advertising Apple Watch as being accurate to 5 hundredths of a second. Accuracy isn’t even close to the primary appeal for mechanical watch aficionados.

Gruber also points out how very precise clocks are not new to computers, either.

I am not in the right tax bracket to be a serious watch person — incidentally, this seems like a good time to plug my Patreon — but this is a good explanation of why precision for precision’s sake is not very interesting in a wholly computerized era. Improving the accuracy of a mechanical watch requires precise craft which is as artful as it is obsessive. This is subjective, but the story behind Network Time Protocol is not as compelling. This is not a money thing, either: while mechanical watches are often a signifier of wealth, it is hard to imagine the timekeeping apps on an Apple Watch being more interesting than the springs and gears of a mechanical movement regardless of its price.

The watch is just one product categories in which mechanical versions, once dominant, are now a niche. Everything is a computer; the Andresseen Doctrine has comfortably won. But that does not mean we must cede the emotionally powerful qualities of these objects to cold, raw efficiency. Digital does not necessarily mean boring. Apparently, younger people are discovering the joy of older cameras, saying they have “a layer of personality” not present in phone cameras. A smartphone is more like an appliance; a point-and-shoot is a tool for creativity.

This is not a veneer. It is a more important quality than it seems. For all we focus on products’ utility, I wish there was as much consideration given to how they feel — to the emotional connection they create. I, for one, do not want to live in a world dominated by appliances. I want to love the things I use, and I am sure I am not alone. Do not get me wrong: I appreciate so many of these things; they are brilliant in ways I can barely comprehend. But clever is not a substitute for soul. Too many of the products and services I use feel more advanced and less compelling than those of, say, ten or twenty years ago. We should find that quality again.