Summer is when my slow cooker gets the most use. Sure, we tend to associate slow cookers with wintery stews and chilis, but hot days are when I least feel like turning on an oven, and there are tons of great, summer-friendly, kosher slow-cooker recipes (cilantro lime chicken tacos! BBQ-esque brisket! cardamom rice pudding with fresh peaches or berries!) to explore.
And guess what? The inventor of the slow cooker was one of the tribe. Irving Naxon (ne Nachumsohn) applied for the first patent for a slow cooker in 1936. His daughter Lenore, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, told me in an interview that her father was inspired by cholent. “His mother grew up in Vilna or wherever, and on Friday afternoons her mother would take a big crock and fill it with dried beans and root vegetables and a shtickel meat, and ask my grandmother to go to the local bakery and put the crock in the oven. The oven was turned off at the end of the day, but as it cooled it provided slow, even, diminishing-temperature cooking. Then [on Saturday] my grandmother was sent back to pick up the crock, and the stew was cooked. Dad asked himself, ‘How can I emulate this kind of slow, even cooking in a crock-lined pot?’”
Naxon’s patent was granted in 1940. His invention began life as “The Boston Beanery” (at various times it was also known as the Naxon Beanery and the Flavor Crock) and the original market was coffee shops and luncheonettes. “There was a gold one and a red one, so you could have one for milchig and one for fleishig,” Lenore recalled.
The device was just one of Naxon’s over 200 patents, along with a portable washing machine on casters that attached via hose to a kitchen faucet, a frying pan with its own heating element, infrared and ultraviolet health lamps, a tabletop tub with an agitator for washing cloth diapers, and a tiny electric washer for doll clothes called Dollyduds. During WWII, Naxon invented a sonar submarine detector and an oxygen-flow indicator for aircraft used by the Defense Department. “And when you go to Times Square and see what they call the Zipper,” Lenore said of the electronic billboard that wraps around 1 Times Square and broadcasts a steady stream of headlines, “in an earlier incarnation it was the Naxon TeleSign. It sent data from The New York Times all over the world over telephone wires.”
Irving Naxon was born in 1902 in Jersey City, the youngest of three children. His brother was Meyer and his sister was Sadie. His father died when he was 2. “He remembered the funeral and the horse-drawn carriage,” Lenore said. His mother moved her young family from relative to relative. First, they lived in Fargo, North Dakota, and then moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, so that his older brother could avoid the WWI draft. While living in Canada, Irving got a correspondence-school degree in electrical engineering and worked as a telegrapher for the Canadian Pacific Railway. “When Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks eloped, Dad was in the telegraph office in Saskatchewan, and he was the one who reported the news back to Hollywood,” Lenore said.
The family wound up settling in Chicago. Naxon became the first Jewish engineer for Western Electric, the engineering arm of Ma Bell. He began inventing things, and since he couldn’t afford a patent attorney, he took and passed the patent bar exam so he could do it himself. Soon he opened a small factory, and also licensed his inventions to department stores and private-label brands. (“When I see headlines about Sears’ financial troubles, it’s sad to me,” Lenore said. “Sears Roebuck put my sisters and me through college.”)
Irving married a woman 13 years his junior named Fern, who “came from a family of strong women who, because of their generation, were the power behind their husbands,” Lenore said. She took care of the home and volunteered at shul, but also worked for a while at the factory. “She used to tell a story about sitting in the factory wearing her mink coat because it was cold in there,” Lenore said, “and someone came in and said, ‘pretty fancy for a receptionist,’ and she said, ‘I sleep with the boss.’ They had a true partnership and complemented each other.” Fern’s bravura Crock-Pot dish? Chicken Paprikash, with paprika, celery, peppers, onions, a can of tomato soup, and a tub of sour cream. “My parents were brought up in kosher homes, but they didn’t keep kosher. My mom had an extra set of glass dishes just for when Grandpa came to visit.”
In 1945, when his oldest child started kindergarten, Nachumsohn legally changed the family name to Naxon. “It wasn’t good to have a German-sounding name then,” Lenore said. “People didn’t distinguish between Jews and Germans. And it had been his company name for at least a decade before then—he literally X’d out the middle of his name. The X in the middle of the logo has electricity coming out of it, like lightning. Who could afford a branding agent? He created it himself.
“Dad was a workaholic,” Lenore recalled. “But he was kind and generous, involved in Jewish and environmental causes, and he had three daughters whose accomplishments he was very proud of. We’re all very different, and he never pushed us. One is an attorney who served in the Peace Corps, another is an early childhood educator and professor, and I’m a performing-arts administrator.” She went on, “He was a little bit of an absent-minded professor. Driving the car, he’d listen to classical music on the radio and tap along with his foot on the accelerator.”
It drives Lenore nuts when people hear of her family history and say, “You must be rich!” Money wasn’t all that important to her father. “He had offers to go public, but he liked not being beholden to anyone. He wanted control. He wanted his integrity. When he was ready to retire and sell his business to Rival Manufacturing in Kansas City, he did so because he liked I.H. Miller, the company’s owner. “He wanted cash rather than stock, which was not the best decision,” Lenore said. “But he’d grown up in poverty, so he wanted security. He was risk-averse. He was really proud of his body of work, and that was the most important thing.”
Rival gave Naxon’s slow cooker a cosmetic makeover, rebranded it the Crock-Pot, and made it a flashy debut at Chicago’s National Housewares Show in 1971. The first Crock-Pot cost $25 (you can still buy a new one for that price or less, nearly 40 years later) and came in groovy colors like harvest gold and avocado. It was an immediate sensation, doing $2 million in sales in its first year, $10 million the next, $23 million in ’73, $57 million in ’74, and $93 million in ’75. Rival’s timing was perfect, what with the oil crisis of 1973 and mounting anxiety about wasting energy; the Crock-Pot took as much electricity to run as an incandescent light bulb, and Rival made sure consumers knew it. And of course, during the recession, the device’s slow-and-low cooking technique meant it was perfect for cheaper, tougher cuts of meat. Crockpot Cookery was a 1975 bestseller, along with The Joy of Sex and The Star Trek Starfleet Technical Manual, “two other titles that reveal the era’s fascination with technology and with the place of women in society,” noted a witty 2015 Washington Post article on the Crock-Pot’s failed promise to liberate American women.
I have indelible childhood memories of another literary Crock-Pot appearance: In Ramona and Her Mother, Ramona Quimby’s lower-middle-class family relies on the Crock-Pot when Ramona’s mom gets a job. One night everyone gets home after a tense day at work and school, only to discover that no one remembered to push the “on” button. “As soon as Ramona stepped through the back door, she knew something was wrong. There was a chill about the house, and it had the faint mustiness of a place that had been closed and unoccupied all day. There was no welcoming fragrance of simmering meat and vegetables. The tiny light on the Crock-Pot was dark, the pot cold.” There’s little other food in the house, so it’s pancakes for dinner, and the parents wind up fighting about the doneness of the pancakes except they’re not really fighting about the doneness of the pancakes, and this is one of the most stressful scenes in 1970s children’s literature.
But where was I? Ah yes, alas, in the mid- to late-’80s, cheap Crock-Pot clones soon started to flood the market. In 1976, Crock-Pot sales fell to $78 million and kept plummeting. At one time there were 40 companies making slow cookers to sell in the U.S. The Crock-Pot’s mad heyday was over.
But! Everything is cyclical! Today, slow-cooking is experiencing a resurgence. It’s not only kitschy and retro, it makes good food. Slow cooking taps into our desire for authentic, heritage recipes and healthful eating. If you’re a working parent, a slow cooker helps you get dinner on the table fast. (All hail Joan Nathan, who told me that you don’t need to brown the meat before you throw it in there, no matter what the recipe you’re using says. Who are you to contradict Joan Nathan?) The Washington Post noted that sales of Crock-Pots rose to 4.4 million in 2014 from 3.2 million units in 2005. Today, 70 percent of American households have a slow cooker; a decade ago, 63 percent did. Slow cooker recipes have improved a lot, too, requiring the dumping of far fewer cans of cream of mushroom soup. My current favorite cookbook is The New Indian Slow Cooker, but there are well-reviewed slow-cooker cookbooks for Mexican, Southern, vegan, Thai, low-cal, Italian, ketogenic, and paleo food, too.
And hey, why confine yourself to food? Lenore noted, “I had a massage last week and the masseuse had a slow cooker in the corner to keep hot towels in. I’ve heard they also use it for hot stones for hot-stone massages. My mom always taught me that you don’t need to buy a vaporizer—just put a crock pot under the baby’s crib and it becomes a humidifier for the room. If you have an old one you can put Vicks in it, too.” (This anecdote feels like the Jewish version of “Windex” from My Big Fat Greek Wedding.)
Irving Naxon died in 1989. But his legacy lives on. There is a Crock-Pot in the Smithsonian. And Lenore Naxon is in a Crock-Pot Facebook group, where, she says, “I’m kind of a celebrity.”
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.