The First Thing You Unpack

Am looking after a kitten in a Golders Green house for one night. The owners are a US couple, a detail borne out by one notable omission in the kitchen. There is no electric kettle. Just a coffee machine.

Neither person is a tea drinker. When visitors have asked for a cup they use the microwave oven to boil a cupful of water. Asking around the modern hive mind that is Twitter and Facebook, I learn that this substitute method is quite common for US households entertaining British guests.

In fact, I now know that in the US electric kettles are a distinctly rare kitchen appliance. Stove top kettles are a more likely choice for the mere 4 per cent of Americans who drink tea. One reason is the difference in mains voltage – 120v in the US, compared to the UK’s 240v – doubling the boiling time for electric kettles in the States. But there’s the whole ritualistic connotations of boiling an electric kettle that the US doesn’t have: it’s what you’re meant to do during a TV advertising break (fewer of those in the UK per hour of TV, making it more of a big deal). It’s something you can easily set up in a room without a cooker: offices, student rooms, hotel rooms.

Suddenly fascinated by this subject, I chat to people online and find that one US store, Target, does stock affordable electric kettles on their website, though they’re not always in the physical shops.

From a Brit who lived in LA: “After months of no joy at even Target I finally bought a new one in a Persian market on the westside of LA. Ridiculous.”

From a Brit in Arizona: “Been here 4 yrs and only spotted electric kettles within the last six months, at Target. In Arizona you make ‘Sun Tea’, teabags in water and leave it outside to brew.”

Target’s item description has one sentence that would never appear on a UK listing:

“- Boils faster than a microwave”

And by way of a counterpart appliance, I had this from an American in the UK:

“It took me nearly a decade to find a reasonably-priced decent waffle iron in Britain, which is standard kit in any US kitchen shop.”

But for me the most defining aspect of the electric kettle is its importance during one of the most stressful and defining experiences in life: moving house.

As one Brit reminds me:

“When you hire boxes from a moving company, the ‘how to pack’ instructions tell you to leave the kettle till last.”

And from another Brit:

“That’s exactly how it is: electric kettle packed last, and first item to be plugged-in. That first cup makes it feel you’ve arrived.”

Thanks to everyone on Twitter and Facebook for the enlightenment. Quotes from Stuart Nathan, Sophie Heawood, Caroline Corbett, @eighths, @cybermango.

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