The culinary revolution that swept through the country in the 1970s and ’80s created a new lot of status signifiers that extended from pâte and warm goat cheese salad — early entries on the menu at Chez Panisse in Berkeley — to industrial-grade kitchen appliances meant to signal that one’s interest in cooking was not provisional. Early adopters of the new orthodoxies bought bulky, high-powered Wolf ranges, crafted in stainless steel, from restaurant suppliers, until the company, recognizing an evolving luxury market, introduced a residential version that would go on to spend the next decades as shorthand for a moneyed cosmopolitan domesticity.
Even if you were never going to acquire a $10,000 six-burner range with intense heat and flame capacity, the modern ethos around food and design insisted on gas, raining down condescension on the coiled cooking surface in all of its functional and aesthetic impoverishment, its opposition to delivering, you might learn, a perfectly seared scallop from the Bay of Fundy. How would an electric stove appear in a Nancy Meyers movie other than as a sacrilege along the order of linoleum at Versailles?
Anyone who had the vision to imagine that kitchen mechanicals would eventually have a place in the culture wars could probably not have foreseen where the politics were going to align — with the populist right embracing the gas range as a protected-class-victim appliance, even though federal data confirms what we might suspect. The gas stove is predominantly found in the most liberal states; 70 percent of households in California use gas while 15 percent of those in Tennessee do.
The issue erupted after an official at the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission recently suggested that gas cooking equipment could be banned in light of more and more research linking it to harmful pollutants and childhood asthma in particular. “If the maniacs in the White House come for my stove,” Ronny Jackson, a Republican congressman from Texas, quickly announced on Twitter, “they can pry it from my cold dead hands.”
The commission clarified that the federal government had no interest in extracting gas stoves from American kitchens. Any regulation that might materialize would almost certainly be limited to prohibiting gas cooking appliances in the construction of new buildings. Dozens of cities around the country have moved in this direction already, as a means of hitting targets to reduce carbon emissions.
In December 2021, New York’s City Council voted to ban the use of fossil fuels — and by extension gas stoves — altogether in new buildings, a law scheduled to go into effect this year for structures shorter than seven-stories tall and in 2027 for all buildings. Underlying the legislation is the idea that the power grid’s move toward renewable energy sources will make electrification an important combatant in the fight against climate change.
From the perspective of environmental sustainability, urban living is typically viewed as more virtuous than its suburban alternative because cities are densely packed and heavily reliant on public transportation. In New York City, 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions comes from buildings. The problem though, is that many of them went up before 1930, leaving the challenge of conversions to energy efficiency especially daunting.
Consider the owner of a co-op in a 1928 building who, answering to ethical impulses, wishes to pry his gas-powered double-oven Wolf range out of his meticulously renovated Plain English kitchen and replace it with the kind of electricity-dependent induction cooking appliance that has become increasingly fashionable. The many steps involved reveal just how complicated a process this is in New York.
Not too long ago, Erika Belsey Worth, an architect specializing in the renovation of townhouses and prewar co-ops, received a call from a former client who wanted to do the right thing. First Ms. Worth’s team had to see what sort of power was available to the apartment. It turned out that the apartment’s electrical system could not be upgraded, thus making it infeasible to shift away from gas cooking.
Working on a gut renovation of another co-op, Ms. Worth looked into bringing up the power, but the building simply didn’t have the capacity. “The New York City electrical grid is not ready for this,” she said.
Forced to stick with gas, a family might choose to mitigate the potentially harmful health effects by redirecting ventilation outside. But this isn’t always easy either. “Try venting to the exterior with a limestone facade in a landmark district,” Ms. Worth offered. The millions of renters in New York without the authority to make any of the these changes on their own are left to the will of landlords, who would presumably resist bearing the expense.
Co-ops and condominiums are well positioned to make a difference in the near term, especially if they are well financed, with the means to make electrical upgrades, and if residents work collectively, the historical basis for co-operative living in the first place. However well intentioned it may be for any single apartment dweller to switch out her means of cooking, the environmental benefits from electrification are best achieved, as a spokesman for Con Edison explained, “through whole building solutions.”
Currently, the company is working with the city’s Buildings Department toward the goal of electrifying heating in 150,000 buildings by 2030. Eventually, the gas stove, like the gas lamp or a pack of Virginia Slims, will exist as a relic of another era. But we are a long way from a time in which our relationship to gas cooking will be merely nostalgic.