Traditional Kettles are Better than Electric

Nikolaus Kennelly, Columnist

We find ourselves at the start of a deep and gloomy winter, one in which a barely perceptible cold front is passing through our most marginalized communities and many of us are in need of some warmth. So we open our tea drawers, the divine aromas of places untouched by our problems—Nok Cha, Dian Hong, Nepal Ilam, Matcha, Qi Hong Mao Feng—filling our nostrils. One by one we sniff the leaves, searching for the most pleasant scents, until we find the one that stands way above all the others: Nepal Ilam (trust me, it’s really good). Feverishly, impatiently, we shut the drawer and turn to the second most important step in the process: boiling the water. But suddenly there’s a hitch–to our left is a white cylindrical electric kettle and to our right is a tiny reseda green ceramic thing. How are we ever to choose between the two?

Maybe you’ll say that we should just go with the most efficient option, where by “efficient” you might mean something like “heats up the water in the shortest amount of time,” or maybe you’ll say that we should go with the simplest option, which probably means the one that doesn’t need an external heat source. But notice that in both these cases we’ve chosen to think about the kettle as “the thing that is used for boiling water” rather than as “the kettle.” Here’s what I mean: if we were to just think of the kettle as “the kettle,” we might take into account whether reseda green is more pleasant to look at than white or whether we prefer whistling to a loud click. That is, our intuitive understanding of the kettle has a big impact on how we go about thinking about it, and if we aren’t careful that intuitive understanding might blind us to things that we’d otherwise consider important.

I happen to prefer reseda green to white, and so accepting that I’ve chosen to think about the kettles in terms of their colors I can say with certainty that I prefer one to the other. But, of course, saying that I prefer one particular kettle to another particular kettle is very different from saying that one class of kettles is better than another, which as the title indicates is the whole point of this article. In order to do that I would need to think about the kettles in terms of characteristics belonging to all kettles of one class and none of the other. So, what sorts of characteristics belong to electric kettles that don’t belong to traditional kettles? Well, electric kettles tend to have cords, tend to not whistle, tend to not be ceramic and often have little lights that signify whether they are on or not. But can I say with absolute certainty that if a kettle is electric it will have these features and if it is traditional it will not?

Let’s think about that. Must an electric kettle have a cord? Well, a quick Google search for “battery powered kettle” turns up a few results, so the answer would appear to be no. Do they never whistle? Again, per Google, no. Are they never ceramic? Again, no. Finally, do they always have lights? Nope. So it appears that I can’t patently say that traditional kettles are better than electric for any of those reasons. But nonetheless, I insist that traditional kettles are better than electric.