The air fryer, like some of the more superfluous appliances in my house, was a Black Friday purchase. It arrived on our doorstep on a chilly December evening, part of the parade of questionable decisions that my roommates and I had made on the internet: an egg boiler shaped like a hen, t-shirts I didn’t need. We put our new Philips Air Fryer Viva Turbo Star on the countertop, a bulky black box with two dials to set temperature and cook-time, and an outward-facing handle that, when unlatched from the body, reveals a wire fry basket that can hold nearly 2 pounds of food. The basket looks similar to one you might see dipped into a vat of hot oil at a burger joint, but with an air fryer—tosses glitter—you don’t need the calorie-laden oil to get that calorie-laden taste.
What a promise! It works like a supercharged convection oven. Load the fry basket, mist with oil, pop the basket into the fryer’s inner chamber, and turn the dial. Inside, the oil is circulated in hot air at high speed. For our first experiment with the air fryer, my roommate and I loaded a bag of pre-cooked, frozen tater tots. We poured them into the basket, turned the dial, and waited as the fan’s fryer emitted a loud, gravelly hum.
The experts will tell you an air fryer is not a worthwhile purchase. First of all, you don’t reap the health benefits if you throw in convenience foods. If you use foods that have already been cooked, like frozen tater tots, you’re essentially just re-heating (and adding more oil to) fatty foods. Even WIRED’s own reviewer, Joe Ray, advised against buying an air fryer. He tried air-fried baked potatoes, shrimp skewers, and a whole chicken—all to disappointing results. Better to enjoy true fried food occasionally, he wrote, before concluding: “The rare dose of perfection is far better than the constant drip of mediocrity.”
This is all true. But what makes air fryers so exhilarating has nothing to do with how they make fried food healthier and everything to do with how they make unhealthy food easier to get. In the months that followed the arrival of the air fryer, I experimented with air frying all manner of food with little to negative nutritional value. Got a hankering for chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs? Zap! Cheesy mashed potato pancakes? Fire up that air fryer! A few nights ago, my roommate had the idea to toss in chopped-up Spam. When she drew it out, the kitchen instantly smelled like childhood Saturday mornings when my dad cooked Spam fried rice.
In my entire adult life, I have never felt more extravagant than I have with my air fryer. Its tiny fry basket—deeply inefficient, given how much space the air fryer takes on the counter—is perfectly suited for single servings. When you can satisfy your snack lust in less time than it takes to preheat the oven, there’s no time to reconsider healthier options. Sure, you could zap your nuggets in the microwave just as effectively, but would they be as crispy on the edges, or as golden? Why would you stick to the healthier option anyway? When you think of the din of diet fads that shun indulgence, the air fryer’s inexplicably loud drone becomes a defiant roar of “I’ll eat whatever the hell I want, when I want!” as it churns out tater tots at my command.
Comfort food is popularly associated with this kind of fried, fatty fare—food not to sate your hunger, but your emotional needs. Herman Melville famously wrote, in Moby Dick, of a bowl of chowder on a frigid night: “[A] warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained… It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.”
“Comfort food is something that simulates the need for interaction,” says Jordan Troisi, a psychologist at Sewanee University of the South who has devoted his career to defining comfort food. The “comfort,” his research argues, comes not from a food’s nutritional value (or lack thereof) but from the associations the eater makes between food and relationships. Clam chowder tastes good, but it also gives solace to weary sailors. The most evocative comfort foods, Troisi says, are associated with family traditions and celebrations. Air fryers make it remarkably easy for an at-best-mediocre cook (that’s me) to make family recipes: Hunks of pork belly cooked in a saucepan and thrown into the air fryer taste like lechon kawali, the deep-fried Filipino pork belly that reminds me of Christmas at my grandma’s house.
I moved to San Francisco after college, into a landscape of restaurants where I can’t afford to eat. Home is an eight hour drive away, where eating out usually meant going to Arby’s after church. One day, overwhelmed and questioning my future, I bought a 28-ounce sack of Ore-Ida frozen curly fries to cook in the air fryer. In seven minutes, I had a plate of popping-hot curly fries. In five minutes, I lay curled on the couch, a little satisfied and a little ashamed, the sheen of grease on my fingers.
Do air-fried foods taste as good as their fat-bathed analogues? Certainly not. But they taste good enough, and more importantly, they’re there when I need them to be, when loved ones cannot be.
But the magical thing about something as emotionally evocative as comfort food is that you can always pave them over with new memories. One night, I invited my new San Francisco friends over and offered to zap up the rest of the curly fries. They stared in awe of how easily we could recreate our favorite junk food (faster than if I had made them in the oven!) and how much crispier they are than if they were microwaved. For the rest of the night we played board games and discreetly licked the salt from our fingers.
The air fryer does not make healthy food, at least not in my house. Even my health-conscious roommates have hardly made anything exceptionally “healthy” with it. What this too-big, too-loud, dubiously effective black box can do is make startlingly accessible the single most magical quality of food: its ability to elide distance, and, in a bite of Proustian teleportation, take you home.