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Rory Sutherland: Why don't Americans have kettles?

The most tech-savvy people can be luddites in the kitchen

4 January 2014

9:00 AM

4 January 2014

9:00 AM

I enjoy reading reviews of kitchen gadgetry. Clever new kitchen products are often under-appreciated. Many rituals around food preparation are intended to signal personal effort, rather than to produce edible food with a minimum of fuss. There is hence a tendency towards bogus authenticity among amateur cooks which causes them to eschew labour-saving devices in favour of doing everything in a faux-Victorian fashion.

Professional chefs, who must produce food in quantity every day, do not suffer this delusion: one Michelin-starred chef, when asked to name his favourite item of kitchen equipment, replied ‘the microwave’. Two new devices I particularly recommend are the air-fryer and the soupmaker. Both are commonplace in parts of Asia but were until recently unknown in Britain. Technological adoption is often strangely localised. Or, as William Gibson has it, ‘The future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.’ For instance, browsing through Virginia Postrel’s column on cookery equipment on the US website Bloomberg.com, I was astonished to come across this recommendation among a list of fairly obscure kitchen implements:

Cuisinart electric kettle, $65 You may have gone to Britain and experienced the joy of their electric kettles, which heat up water for tea almost instantly. Sadly, you will not experience that joy on this side of the pond, because they use 220-volt power and we use 110, which apparently means that our electric kettles cannot heat up water as fast as theirs. However, an electric kettle is still extremely useful. It heats up water faster than a stovetop kettle and you can’t burn out the bottom of the pot. Also excellent for offices and dorm rooms. I have this Cuisinart, which is nice because the kettle itself is wireless (there’s a base with a heating element that plugs in).


Seriously? Americans can put a man on the moon and build the USS Nimitz, yet in 2014 you need to travel to Britain to experience the electric kettle? And people need a detailed explanation of what one is, and is used for? Why is Silicon Valley squandering its time developing driverless cars and an Apple iWatch when 300 million people lack access to the single most basic item of domestic equipment? (In fact, the British origins of the electric kettle read like an Ealing Comedy version of the Silicon Valley story. Rather than Hewlett and Packard, we had a Mr Morphy and a Mr Richards. One employee, a Major Russell, had a disagreement with Morphy while another, Major Hobbs, fell out with Mr Richards. They left to found their own breakaway start-up, Russell Hobbs. Their K1 was the first automatic electric kettle.)

Another idea which Brits assume is universal but isn’t is the traffic roundabout. The French have adopted it even more enthusiastically than us. Some clearly exist in Africa, since the Swahili for roundabout is kipi-lefti from the ‘Keep Left’ sign that appeared at the entrance. Yet countries including the US and Canada can only introduce the concept tentatively, since US motorists profess to hate them. Strangely for a country which professes to hate state control, Americans prefer the interventionist traffic light to the natural minarch-ism and self-regulation of the mini-roundabout.

Why do some ideas spread and others remain clustered? Why do high-tech Japanese toilets never sell beyond Japan? Why do so few homes in Britain have dishwashers — the same proportion as in Turkey, and half that of Germany? The idea that technology is eroding cultural and national differences is regularly stated by a small group of cosmopolitans. In fact, outside a few narrow areas, cultural differences and habits are surprisingly resilient.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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