‘No way in hell you are going to put a wok on an electric stove.”
That was Steven Lee, a San Francisco official and restaurant investor, as quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle last year after the city’s Board of Supervisors voted to outlaw natural gas in new buildings.
Nevertheless, they persisted. Per the Sierra Club, the quickening campaign to phase out natural gas recently notched its 50th city-level win in California alone. (Take a bow, Encinitas!) No. 50, as with some others, has “situational exemptions” for restaurants and the like, but the overall push to compel an all-electric design for homes and commercial buildings understandably has had chefs and home cooks worried, roughly for the reasons articulated by Steven Lee.
Berkeley was the pilot light of this movement. The city was the first to ban gas connections in new buildings in 2019, something the California Restaurant Association is still fighting in court. The speed at which other municipalities followed, from Seattle to New York to other cities across California, only underscores how the culture of lawmaking often is the culture of fads.
But what about the people affected?
Ironically, these measures — being driven by progressives in Democrat-run cities to fight climate change — will end up disproportionately disadvantaging minority communities, namely immigrant communities whose cooking cultures are far less compatible with electric stoves.
SFWeekly, covering last year’s debate in San Francisco, drew attention to this disparate impact, focusing again on the art of the wok while noting how Latin American cooking likewise relies on flame:
When placed over a fire’s high heat, a wok imbues the food it cooks with a very “distinct, smoky flavor.” That’s according to Francis Ang, chef and co-owner at San Francisco-based Filipino pop-up restaurant Pinoy Heritage.
The round-bottom cooking pots are an integral component to many Asian dishes. Any true stir-fry, for example, ought to be prepared in a wok.
. . . “Natural gas cooking is so essential in a lot of cuisines.” Ang explains that Chinese and Indian cuisines, for instance, use lots of wood or gas in the wok burner. He’s tried induction woks, but noticed they don’t create enough heat.
Chefs aired similar concerns in a Wall Street Journal piece published over the summer. The Journal detailed how some cities include carve-outs for gas stoves in their natural-gas restrictions (after all, it’s the heating of homes and water, not stoves, that gobbles up most natural gas around the house) but noted that advocates still see full electrification as the end goal.
In my family, a gas stove always has been the non-negotiable amenity when searching for an apartment or, later, a home. I prefer one; everything from frying an egg to cooking pasta to searing a steak is easier when you can keep eyes on the flame. But my wife requires one. An electric stove? We might as well be buying a home without a door. While we’re not cooking with a wok, my wife, who is Indian, depends on fire to forge that staple of Indian cuisine, the roti. The first step — cooking the doughy discs in a frying pan — could technically be done on any stovetop. The last step, however, involves placing each roti on a wire frame directly over the flame, until it puffs. Flip it, let it puff again, and you’re done. Smear with ghee and stack ’em high.
Subtract the fire, and the whole enterprise is considerably less attractive. It is certainly less traditional.
It should be said that the overall shift to electric has obvious upsides, from eliminating the fumes that these devices emit and that contribute to indoor air pollution to cutting down on methane leaks. But doing too much, too quickly, without regard for which changes people and businesses are willing to abide, has obvious downsides. Chefs value the efficiency, as well as the flavor, that comes with gas cooking. And let’s not forget, natural gas remains cleaner than other fossil fuels and cheaper than electricity, pointing to another way this conversion could create hardship for families as well as restaurants already crushed by pandemic lockdowns. Paul Gessing, writing for NR’s Capital Matters back in August, addressed the long-term challenges in achieving the underlying goal here, which is slashing carbon emissions:
The push for a natural-gas ban is premised on the idea that we should replace fossil fuels with wind and solar technologies that put us on a path to “net-zero emissions.” Of course, if the goal is to truly “electrify” our national economy we’re not just talking about replacing all existing electricity generation. You’ll need a lot of new electricity for all those new appliances, too. Indeed, experts say “electrification” would increase U.S. electricity consumption by 40 percent.
Naturally, “electrification” will not be done using traditional electricity sources. [Senator] Heinrich and his environmentalist allies believe that if they push hard enough, 100 percent of current and additional electricity can be generated by wind and solar power. Considering that according to the Energy Information Administration not much more than 10 percent of current electricity production comes from wind, solar, and geothermal combined, this is going to be an incredibly expensive and challenging proposition.
We should expand our renewable-energy supply. And maybe the 2050 target for “net zero” provides enough time. But, as Gessing mentioned, this project envisions an astounding escalation in renewable-energy production, in order to power the electric grids that, right now, are highly reliant on natural gas. (Anyone see the problem here?)
But back to the thing about the food.
There are an estimated 60 million people of Hispanic origin living in the United States. There are roughly 20 million people of Asian origin in the country, nearly 5 million of whom are Indian and more than 5 million of whom are Chinese.
Telling them that the way they cook their food is bad for the environment certainly is a peculiar position for Democrats to be in.
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