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If you can't stand the heat ...

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In the 1880s, the closed range was hooked up to gas and in the 1890s, to electricity. Food historian Rachel Laudan, author of the forthcoming book "Power Cuisine and History'' says, "No other change in kitchen technology compares to this - the closed gas or electric stove. It made the kitchen cleaner and pleasanter; you could begin cooking with the turn of a knob instead of needing to allow a couple of hours to get the fire going. It transformed cooking methods."

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Ms. Laudan adds that the enclosed stove "led to the great North Euro-American invention, the cake-cookie-pie complex. Before this, baking was a specialist trade. Admittedly, home baking also relied on chemical raising agents, refined white flour, refined white sugar, all of which had become cheap and widely available in the previous half century."

Home refrigerators and freezers arrived in American homes somewhat later. In the US, the Shakers built some of the first ice houses, using sawdust and straw to keep large chunks of ice from melting too quickly. Individual families used a smaller version, the icebox, an insulated box kept cool as a large chunk of ice, delivered weekly, evaporated.

Ice-making machines began to be patented in the 1830s. Refrigeration was being developed about the same time. In 1867, a prototype refrigerated rail car was patented, and soon trains and ships had refrigeration compartments.

After World War I, many Americans began replacing their home iceboxes with refrigerators that had a small freezing compartment. "American housewives took to the mechanical refrigerator as fast as their finances would allow," writes Sylvia Lovegren in her book "Fashionable Food." Those early refrigerators were easier to clean and regulated temperature better than the old-fashioned icebox had. Women could store food more easily, even freezing small quantities, and therefore needed to shop less often.

"With the car and the supermarket, the refrigerator made weekly [rather than daily] shopping possible," Laudan says, adding that the home refrigerator "started America's enchantment with the chilled," from cold drinks to ice cream.

By the mid-1950s, more than 80 percent of American households had a refrigerator, compared to only 8 percent of English households, Ms. Lovegren notes.

Home cooks began buying commercially frozen foods in the 1930s, after Clarence Birdseye started selling his line of "frosted foods." (The word "frozen" was associated with food that had gone bad because of cold weather.)

Most of the gadgets modern cooks take for granted were invented in the past 150 years. In the second half of the 1800s, "Eggbeaters, cherry stoners, apple parers and corers, butter churns, meat choppers - all these and more were patented in large numbers," but few households owned them, Strasser writes.

Laudan sees the application of the small electric motor to kitchen appliances as an important development.

By the 1930s, housewives could buy electric devices ranging from chafing dishes, waffle irons, hot-plates, mixers, toasters, and even a free-standing portable oven. "Electric gadgets were the darlings of the 1930s, evidence of the modern age even in the midst of Depression," Lovegren writes.

By the 1970s, American cooks had even more gadgets at their disposal, such as the food processor, the microwave, and the slow cooker, best known by the brand name Crock-Pot.

Lora Brody is the author of "Lora Brody Plugged In: The Definitive Guide to the 20 Best Kitchen Appliances.'' Her pick for the most important modern kitchen appliance? "The easy answer would be the food processor, but my answer would be the slow cooker. Nothing has as many applications as the slow cooker."

The microwave was the largest and perhaps the most important of the kitchen gadgets that became popular in the 1970s. While some brush it off as a device to heat water and reheat frozen food, Smith notes that 64 percent of American homes now have a microwave oven.

Lovegren says, "I think in this century, the microwave is without a doubt the big evolutionary leap because it's made reheating take-out food and frozen entrees possible," which is leading to "the death of cooking in the modern world."

"I think it will take a while, but most people I see around me, except for immigrants or people with strong ethnic backgrounds, don't do any cooking," with the exception of entertaining, she says.

Preparing elaborate dishes for dinner parties is "like a fun hobby or an accomplishment like in Jane Austen [novels] when everyone comes over and the ladies show how prettily they can play the piano," Lovegren says.

Laudan is more circumspect about how the microwave will affect cooking. "We won't know its full impact for another few decades - inventions take that long to find their place - but it's clearly implicated in the move away from meals and toward snacking."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society