The Existential Air Fryer

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I could have devoted last week to work, love, nature, or philosophy. Instead, I poured vast amounts of energy into the acquisition of an air fryer.

This has happened before. Not with an air fryer, though: this device, though launched in 2010, is new to me. My purchase thus required diligent research, a hunt for authentic unpaid reviews, the polling of friends who cook better than I do, various googlings and price comparisons, a big gulp before I bought a pricey Philips model. Then came the unboxing, and a solid hour to figure out that the handle lifted out with the basket. Registering the thing, as though it were a weapon. Skimming the first few of a zillion safety admonitions, because it sort of is a weapon. At last, the tender sponging off, a form of welcome, and a hasty reorganization of our crowded kitchen counter to make room for the new resident.

Before daring to turn it on, I made an eager search for recipes, dancing from one link to the next. Ten Best, Chefs’ Favorites, Mistakes to Avoid. Then I took a quiet moment to internalize the physics of how this swirl of hot air might affect various sorts of food. And then, after carefully reading a few of those recipes, I started all over again, forced into a frustrated and frantic search (accompanied by a few more F-words) for the accessories it turns out I cannot do without. This is something Williams Sonoma failed to mention when it sold me what amounts to a stripped down car without even a seat warmer. I need a grill pan, too. And, of course, a pizza pan. And a baking dish! Silicone muffin cups!

Now comes the soul-sickening realization that by prudently buying the compact size and not the even pricier XXL, I have sent myself to a nowhere land, because almost all the accessories are sized for XXL. Which seems so American—even though they are all made in China, which also seems American. After pulling out a measuring tape, I realize I must search for seven-inch accessories, so I look even harder. Look, there is a set! Baking dish and pizza pan, and a lot of other little crap with far less obvious utility.

Will I use any of this? Remains to be seen. Because as I said, this is not my first bout of appliance obsession. The rice cooker and the slow cooker affected me the same way. But my proud purchase of a Cuisinart food processor—so old now, like me, that I can no longer find replacement blades—consumed far less time. Because internet, or rather the lack thereof. Seems to me I just went out and bought one. A simplicity now almost unimaginable.

The bread machine stayed a glorious obsession for at least three years—I had a binder dedicated to recipes and variations—and then went cold. Why, I do not know. The infatuation just drained away. Something as primal and wonderful as fresh-baked bread ceased to be exciting, and the machine wound up first in the basement, then at a thrift shop. This dissolution did coincide with a general death of the breadmaking trend, but I hate to think myself that vulnerable to peer pressure.

How else, though, are we persuaded toward these appliances? Other people rave about them. Kids have stuffed animals and toys; grown-ups have gear. We envy one another’s gear, so stuff becomes status. And kitchen stuff implies that you cook, an increasingly rare pursuit that ratchets up your standing one more notch. The air fryer looms, large and glossy black, on my counter, a symbol of conspicuous consumption.

Its significance goes deeper, though. One has a relationship with an appliance. My ensemble of gadgetry is as close as I will ever come to having paid household help, or a sous chef, or just someone I love next to me in the kitchen. (Andrew has no interest.) The air fryer and I will do things together. It has skills I do not possess. It will act as an extension of my body, doing something I could only do if I stuck food on a stick over a flame and waved it about in the heated air for an hour. In return, I will treat my air fryer gently—unless it betrays me, at which point it will sail through the window.

I cannot promise to love and use it forever.

In this first flush of enthusiasm, I am always positive that the appliance will change my life, improve my cooking, make us healthier, delight anyone for whom I use it. I make that mad dash for recipes, many of them thrillingly exotic, only two or three practical enough that I will ever try them. Then I settle into a more routine use, returning to our typical menus and calling in the new appliance when it might help. Once I planned an entire winter of slow cooker recipes; now I use the slow cooker six or seven times a year. Gratefully, though; it will never go to the basement. The rice cooker thrilled me until I found out my husband of three decades does not much like rice. Still, I use it for oatmeal. And I use the thirty-five-year-old food processor like it is my toothbrush.

Like the others, the magic airfryer lives in the kitchen, the emotional center of the home, the place where we gather and share and sustain ourselves. These days, our kitchen is also a laboratory, full of experiments desperate to find healthy food that tastes good and keep our cholesterol and blood sugar from gushing like a broken pipe. A late adapter, I put off buying an air fryer until it seemed the only way to persuade Andrew toward a Mediterranean diet. Granted, a breaded and slightly oiled Mediterranean diet, but at least not a deep-fried American one.

For a month or two, the air fryer will be an amusement, a challenge, perhaps even a slight thrill, if we do fall in love. If we do not, I will soak in guilt for having caved to all the ads, the enthusiasm of friends who shop more than I do, and the illusion that a kitchen device can change taste, discipline, and habit.

Cooks were calmer when their only options were a soup kettle and a cast-iron frying pan. Now every purchase requires not only hard mental effort and a chunk of cash but also a certain vulnerability, trust, and willingness to commit. Is the company solid? Are the reviews honest? Was that sarcastic piece in Wired right to debunk air fryers altogether? And did I really need the baking dish, pizza pan, and grill thing? Something kicked in when I read all those chefs insisting on various accessories: a childish vow to do this right, since I was already in. Hell, I even ordered an oil mister, which makes a lot more sense than smearing the stuff on my hands and splashing it everywhere.

Unless, that is, I stop airfrying altogether.

 

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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