The Wiki Man

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, 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.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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Show comments
  • Dave

    How is this article dated 4th of Jan? The future is already here literally?

  • tommy5dollar

    They don’t drink much tea in America and where they do they tend to heat the water in the microwave. There’s no real need for a dedicated kettle without tea, especially when most Yanks have coffee machines.

    • Nohourwastedinthesaddle

      Not true. Everybody I know drinks tea, and they use kettles to boil the water. Some fast food restaurants don’t offer what is called ‘hot tea’, which is annoying. Lots of Americans never drink tea at all — but then I’ve met people that have never drunk coffee and won’t touch soda pop, either. It’s too varied a place to make blanket generalizations about. But look at Starbucks. It offers various kinds of tea and would be absurd if it didn’t. If Americans didn’t drink tea the supermarkets wouldn’t have aisles stacked with it.

      • tommy5dollar

        I’m guessing they’re mostly people on the East/West-coast or other quite cosmopolitan areas? I know some people from New Mexico who hadn’t heard of them until they came to the UK but think they’re great and got one for back home.

        • Nohourwastedinthesaddle

          Yeah, that makes sense.

        • rorysutherland

          In their defence, I would willingly sacrifice my kettle to live in New Mexico.

      • Fergus Pickering

        Surely no grown-up person drinks soda pop.

        • Nohourwastedinthesaddle

          Alas, they do….

        • sotarrthewizard

          Surely I do. In fact, since getting a decent Ginger Beer over here is nearly impossible, I brew my own. . .

          And my wife, you might as well hook up her Coca-cola as an IV Drip. . . .(grin)

    • Paul / Chicago

      Actually there’s an enormous amount of tea consumed here. And I’m right in middle America. I’d never drink tea before noon, but I’d never drink coffee afternoon, it’s too harsh.

      What also comes to mind is that this is still a nation of immigrants. Asian & Eastern European co-workers stop for tea breaks, that’s been common across my working life.

      Do you know what is different? The quality of the tea. The brands from the UK are incredibly better, they’re available everywhere, but they’re expensive.

      • sotarrthewizard

        I actually prefer British “table” tea, like Ty-phoo, to the American table brands. Every time I go over, there are 5-10 boxes stuffed in my luggage. . .

        • You can get Typhoo from Amazon and from Publix (supermarket in Florida). I expect others carry it too: you just have to ask for it, and look.

      • You’d never drink tea before noon? How strange. Why on earth not? It’s the first thing I have, every day of my life! And I don’t stop till it’s time for the vino!

    • rorysutherland

      There is an interesting possibility of path dependence here. If Americans largely started drinking hot tea *after* the arrival of the microwave, then the need to buy a kettle may have diminished a little, since an alternative already existed.

      Interestingly the 120v US electrical system arises from the same kind of order effect. By the time it became clear that 220+ volts was useful in all kind of ways, the US was already chock full of refrigerators and washing machines running on the old standard and the conversion would have been extremely complicated. By contrast, at that time, no-one elsewhere in the world owned a damned thing, and so the switch to 220/230v was pretty easy.

      If you look at this list it’s only a small group of countries other than the US and Canada (and the Caribbean) which have the lower voltage. Libya runs on 127V. Goodness knows why.

      • Iain Adair

        The 127 volt standard is, still, a product of the 220 volts standard! Phase-to-phase on the 127 volt system is 220 volts, while phase-to-neutral on the 127 volt system is 127 volts!. It was thought that this accommodated the best of both worlds.

    • James Lynch

      Erm….what about the hot water for the cafetiere?

  • Nohourwastedinthesaddle

    Good points, Rory. I think the point about the roundabouts is just really that Americans are unfamiliar with them. They’re not sure how to behave and they don’t have the same rules about right-of-way, which makes them more confusing.

    As for kettles, you can now buy different brands of electric kettle in America, though the selection is small. But you’re right: my mother-in-law has refused to give up her stovetop thing for years, despite our claims of faster boiling, handier use, and the convenience of not cluttering the range. Only now is she finally coming round to the idea that what we have is better. I think it’s just a case of being stuck in one’s ways. This can happen to Americans, for sure.

    Not having an electric kettle in America, several years ago, actually resulted in an injury whose scar I still have. I had turned on the wrong element on our basic apartment stove, and hubby had left a plastic cutting board on the part I turned on. So the plastic not the kettle got the heat, and before it could melt any further I lifted it up only to have a long string of hot plastic swing down to my ankle. Oh the humanity!

    • allymax bruce

      I was travelling back from a soccer match with my team, in one of the Soccer moms ‘van’, and they stopped for fast-food. I was scared out of my wits watching the driver juggling the sterring wheel, at 50mph, drinking her soda-pop, and managing delicately to eat a burger without dropping any of it. That was the scariest drive I’ve ever had!

  • Paul / Chicago

    This is the oddest article ever. I’m in the States, and I think I’ve had an electric tea kettle for years, as does my mom in a rural area, as do my sisters. And at every workplace.

    Holds about a quart of water? Heats up in about two to three minutes? Detaches from the base? Automatically shuts off when it boils, as a safety feature? Costs about $20 at Target, etc.? Am I missing something here?

    • rorysutherland

      My surprise exactly. This was from Virginia Postrel, who is a highly sophisticated writer, and it appears on the Bloomberg site, so is hardly intended for the impoverished. But Brit expat friends in the US report that even Walmart does not sell electric kettles, and that their neighbours regard them as weird for owning them.

      What would seem so odd about this to anyone in Britain and Ireland is that literally no-one here does not own an electric kettle: you would be seen as a complete oddball if you used anything else.

      • Paul / Chicago

        Rory I don’t shop at Walmart because I’m a snob, but take a quick look at and you’ll see the same range of electric kettles that are available nearly anywhere here. That Hamilton-Beach 1.85 liter is a real workhorse. I take it camping (when there’s an outlet) to make coffee in a French press, and miso soup later on.

        I wouldn’t use a stove top kettle, it seems sort of dangerous in this day and age.

        • WalterSEllis

          I live in New York. Most of my large extended family don’t have electric kettles. Most heat water on the stove top. It’s just one of those things.

          • They don’t know what they’re missing, in both senses of the phrase.

    • Yes, you’re atypical — unless your ‘years’ just means ‘a handful of years’ rather than ‘the past couple of decades’.

  • laurence

    Electric kettles for tea? No thank you. Tea is best made with a stove top kettle set atop a gas burner. Do agree with the Yanks on the roundabout though.

    • That’s just Ludditism for the sake of it. And you clearly have a lot of time on your hands.

      • laurence

        Electric kettles cut off the moment they reach boiling point. Whilst water below boiling point is best for making coffee (around 80-88 degrees Celsius), tea is best made with water at, or as near to, boiling point as possible. A stove top kettle can achieve a rolling boil which an electric kettle cannot. So, when the water from a stove top kettle comes in to contact with tea leaves in a pre-warmed pot, it not only means hotter tea but also a more effective extraction of flavour from the tea. That is not Luddism; that is discernment. Some things are worth taking time to do. Americans seem to think that bigger and faster equates to ‘better’. Americans gave us instant coffee: instant coffee is to coffee what Sterling board is to Cuban mahogany.

        • Not true, Laurence. My kettle has two settings: a cooler one (good for making lemon water or herbal infusions) and a full setting which is such a long rolling boil that I think it’s over the top and so I hit the switch if I’m around.

          Americans don’t all think the same way. And the whole point of Rory’s article is that electric kettles are an English phenomenon that was slow to catch on in America!

  • dan

    try and find an oven in japan – seriously hard to do. a very hi-tech and gastronomic nation survives on a two hob burner, a tiny grill and a micro wave. foreigners in the uk can’t understand how we’re so wealthy yet happily live without mixer taps

  • DavidJohnson

    I’m afraid the explanation as to why American’s don’t use kettles is much more prosiac. In the USA electricity is delivered at 110V and not 240V as it is here in the UK. Kettles are quite electricity hungry devices and would heat water quite slowly at 110V. This leaves you with two options: expensive electronics to step up the voltage or having the kettle hard wired into the wall so two power supplies cab be combined and wired into the kettle (which is what I understand they do with electric hobs). So electric kettles in the US are either slow, expensive, or a pain to install.

  • DBarry

    “Americans prefer the interventionist traffic light to the natural minarch-ism and self-regulation of the mini-roundabout.”

    I’ve driven a fair bit in Fort Worth, Florida and Sacramento, and instead of mini roundabouts, the “first to the junction goes first” seems to work very well on smaller roads. This may be partly because drivers don’t seem to speed at 60mph between junctions.

    I’ll be the first to admit, however, that my experience may not be typical. Any Americans care to comment?

    • dw

      I’ve lived in the US (northern California) for 15 years. There are a few tiny mini-roundabouts in residential areas, but otherwise they’re not found.

      Four-way stop signs (first in, first out) are very common at low-traffic intersections. Otherwise, pretty much everything has traffic lights, which I detest (although you can turn right on a red light, which makes them slightly less annoying).

      • rorysutherland

        I like the four-way stop, though it took me a while to master them. When I first came across them, I kept trying to do the “after you” thing, trying to allow the other car to go first, which confused the hell out of everyone. Once you get used to them, they work very well.

        There are, though, cases where your horror of roundabouts or traffic circles leads to absurd junctions like this one:

        There may be some underlying rule here, but I couldn’t make sense of it at all.

    • The Laughing Cavalier

      The “first to the junction goes first” rule is a nightmare. What happens when two very polite old gentlemen arrive at a junction simultaneously? Gridlock.

      • dw

        That’s theoretically possible, but it never happens in practice.

        Kind of like Buridan’s ass, which was supposed to die of hunger because it couldn’t choose which of two identical piles of hay to eat.

      • Or they both say ‘bugger it’ at the same time and there’s a smash-up.

    • Americans have no idea what to do at a roundabout — or traffic circle, as they call them. My hubby, who is American-born, is a pro at roundabouts and wishes his fellow citizens yielded right-of-way as the English do: but he passed his English driving test, so he knows all about it.

  • Madeleine

    When I lived in America 20 years ago I used a stove top kettle as electric ones weren’t commonly found. Americans found two things I did odd/British: 1) drying my washing on a washing line and 2) using a harness on my toddler.

    • rorysutherland

      The act of using a tumble-drier even when it is sunny, breezy and baking hot outside may be driven in the US by social cues: it is a mark of poverty to have laundry drying outside. It is also worth remembering that American gardens are a lot less fenced/hedged off than British ones are, so your laundry is much more on display than it would be here.

      Funny how little environmental influences have a knock-on effect. In the UK (unlike Germany, the US) basements are very rare in houses. Hence the washing machine has to go in the kitchen. Hence there’s then often no room for a dishwasher.

      • Madeleine

        Yes it was definitely viewed as what ‘trailer trash’ did, even though we had a lovely long back garden and my line was right at the bottom of it, odder still was the reaction to my putting my then toddler into a leather harness when we walked (another ‘odd’ thing!) to the nearby shopping centre; Oh! such wiiticisms ensued such as “Do you think she’s a dog?” etc. Other than that had a very happy 5 years living in Shelburne, Vermont.

      • That’s true, Rory: it is very gauche to dry laundry in public. But also, clothes and towels dried in the dryer generally feel much softer and nicer — and they don’t have the wrinkles, either. I dry my swimsuits and workout gear in the Florida sun, and finish off damp towels, but that’s generally it.

        We don’t have basements in Florida, either — or anywhere in the subtropics or borderline subtropics such as Texas. We have laundry rooms instead — or else put the laundry machines in the garage or just outside in a sheltered nook.

    • I’m British too and I still think you’re odd!

  • expatmum

    When I came to the USA 23 years ago I could NOT find an electric kettle. Now, while there’s still not the choice you’d see in the UK, most stores that sell them have at least 5 to choose from.
    What they lack in kettle variety, they more than make up for in coffee brewing equipment.

    • Have a look on Amazon. When I first bought my electric kettle in America — after burning myself with melted plastic after a stove-top mix-up — the only thing available was a Bodum. Not my favourite design and not very advanced, either. Now there’s lots to choose from. But as I say, you’ll see the greatest range on Amazon.

  • bhutanbeau

    I know Americans have their own name for a roundabout and it isn’t roundabout. I used to know it..but….can someone remind me?

    • mctruck

      ‘Traffic circle’, I believe.

    • Kellyann

      Also “rotary.” There are tons of them, where I live (central Vermont).

    • What mctruck says: traffic circle.

  • Calum Davidson

    Rory – another wee UK/USA electrical factoid that I always find interesting, and a major reason that Japan had real problems with electrical power post Fukushima. They have two power grids, the one in the south is based on the UK/European 50hz frequency, and the in the North is based on the US 60hz frequency. Dates back to the first electrical equipment bought in the 1890’s and then embedded when the South Islands were in the UK zone of occupation after WW2, and the North was US. Both rebuild to their own systems, but bizarrely used 100volts.

    The two grids have only four (very complex) HVDC interconectors, so moving power around Japan is not easy.

    And no – I have no idea if they use kettles to make green tea in Japan.

    • rorysutherland

      Green tea is slightly odd, in that it should not be made with boiling water, but water at around 85-degrees. A few recent fancier kettles allow you to choose from several temperatures as well as the default boiling point: 95-degrees is also better for coffee than 100.

      I do get a slight post-colonial thrill when I find places such as Singapore and HK which use British sockets/plugs.

    • choukeru

      Kettles (more like small urns, really) in Japan allow you to choose the temperature at which you like your water. It then boils it up to that temperature and keeps it there. There are other “eco” options, which allow you to set timers, so if you’d like to switch it off at night, but have a hot cup of tea as soon as you wake up, they can do that.

      They also have the stovetop kettles with a whistle, as well as tiny two-cup electrical kettles. I’ve never seen a large 1.5/2L kettle there though, as I assume the same problems as the US has would arise with the 110V power.

  • Virginia Postrel

    Megan McArdle is the kitchen guru, not me.

    • rorysutherland

      My apologies. You are right.

      • rorysutherland

        After reading Megan’s piece, I watched you giving a wonderful Youtube talk on Glamour (interesting that Americans never dropped the “u”), and hence got muddled. So sorry.