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    Friday, March 01, 2024

    On culture wars and how we cook dinner

    This kitchen includes a four-burner Viking gas stove.

    In the first year of her life, my daughter got to peek into more professional kitchens than most people see in a lifetime. Paid family leave and childcare, as those of us who live and work in the U.S. know, is a disaster. As a freelancer, I cobbled together some time off after I gave birth, some of it even paid. Without being able to justify the price of full-time childcare, though, and quickly realizing it was more efficient to use what part-time care I did have to write, my daughter in her BABYBJÖRN carrier came with me to interview baristas about what they thought of oat milk, urban farmers growing mushrooms, and NYC chefs about everything from new restaurants to food waste.

    It was at a restaurant in Brooklyn that I first saw someone cook on an induction cooktop. At first, it reminded me of cooking on a hot plate in a dorm room, I recall the chef telling me, but I wanted a kitchen with as low a carbon footprint as possible, and that meant no gas.

    It was pre-pandemic, and while induction stoves date to the 1930s, I'd never met someone who made a conscious choice to use one to do good for the planet. If it's not already, how we cook dinner is about to become the next culture war.

    Chances are your stove is gas or electric. Easy to clean with their smooth, flat surfaces, electric cooktops use heated metal coils or other heating elements. Traditional electric stovetops must transfer heat from the heating element to the stove surface to the pot or pan, making them rather inefficient. Gas stoves require a gas line, have open flames and instant heat adjustments, and are a favorite of many cooks. I've heard countless professional chefs (and a lot of non-professionals) say you can't cook as well on an electric stove. That always feels like a bit of a cop-out to me, though. A bit like saying, 'oh, I could totally run a 5-minute mile if I had [insert latest pricey running shoes].' Tools are important for sure, but more essential, in my opinion, are skill, practice, perseverance, talent and perhaps a little luck. Gas stoves are tools that ask children and the planet to pay quite a price.

    A newly released study has found one in eight cases of asthma in children in the U.S. is due to the pollution given off by cooking on gas stoves. Cue the political scrambling. Richard Trumka Jr., a U.S. Consumer Product Safety commissioner, said in an interview with Bloomberg that the agency could consider banning gas stoves. The Biden administration followed that up by saying the White House does not support a ban, and Trumka clarified that the agency was not going to take people's gas stoves away.

    The study confirmed what many other studies have been saying for years; gas stoves are harmful to the planet and our health. In 2022, a Stanford study found that levels of nitrogen dioxide emitted from gas stoves and ovens can rise above safe standards set for outdoor pollution by the Environmental Protection Agency within just a few minutes. Note there are no indoor standards for safe levels of the pollutant. Research has also repeatedly found that gas stoves release toxic chemicals and carcinogens even when turned off. They also release methane — a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide — when turned off.

    Already New York City has banned gas stoves in all new buildings, and Gov. Kathy Hochul is proposing banning the sale of gas stoves. Meanwhile, several municipalities with Republican-controlled legislatures have passed laws to prevent cities from banning gas stoves. Will the U.S. ban gas stoves? I think that's doubtful. We don't have a great track record in this country of restricting things simply because they harm children. But I do think gas stoves will be nonexistent by the time my child is my age. At least, I hope they are.

    We can't mitigate the worst of the climate crisis without moving away from fossil fuels, and gas stoves are a part of that. What can you do in the meantime? When it's time for you to get a new stove, don’t replace it with a gas stove.

    In 7 years of home ownership, my stove is the only major appliance in the house I haven't replaced. Sometimes I talk to my stove. I ask how it's doing in the early morning as I turn it on to boil water for coffee. I like to let it know I'd really like it to last another year. Yet, when I do have to replace it, I have little doubt I'll replace it with an induction stovetop.

    Induction stoves are electric but use electromagnetism to heat cookware. The electromagnetic reaction occurs directly in the pot or pan, allowing for fast rises or drops in temperature. Because the cooktop doesn't get hot, it tends to be safer. Simply put, they are the most efficient cooktop with the lowest greenhouse gas emissions. And thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, there's money in switching to an induction stove. Still, they're expensive, not all cookware works on them, and as my stove is already electric and purchasing any new item only adds to the number of resources I use up, I'm in no rush to buy one.

    If you have a gas stove, you can lessen some of the harmful health effects by keeping windows open, always using the range hood and using electric appliances such as an electric kettle instead of using your gas stove to boil water. Finally, it's worth contacting your elected officials about them. There should be more incentives for switching to an induction cooktop, and there should be better safety standards for indoor pollutants. A ban on new gas lines and/or the selling of gas stoves would force landlords to get rid of them, making the simple act of cooking dinner safer for many people that don't have much control over the type of stove in their homes. It would also be good for the planet.

    Bridget Shirvell is a freelance writer in Mystic. She authored the “My Planet” series in The Day that can be found at www.theday.com/myplanet.

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