I am a gadget writer. But I wasn't born this way. Every gadget-lover has a first love. That first gizmo that caused a snowball effect and whoa, here you are, surrounded by piles of future-fabulous gear.
Mine was the Ronco Food Dehydrator.
In 1991 I was in fifth grade, and I had just discovered Saturday Night Live. This meant that I was forcing myself to stay up until 1 am every weekend, and this led me down the rabbit hole of late night network TV. After I'd get tired of watching Soul Train, I'd start flipping around, at which point I discovered breed of television show until then totally foreign to me: the infomercial. These products were so great that an entire half-hour show had been dedicated to them! And that's when I met Ron Popeil.
Ron wasn't just a shill, he actually invented all kind of As Seen On TV crap. The Showtime Rotisserie, the Inside-The-Shell Egg Scrambler, the Pocket Fisherman, the Automatic Pasta Maker, and of course, the infamous Hair-in-a-Can Spray. But I didn't care about any of those trifles. It was the Ronco Food Dehydrator-slash-jerky-maker I wanted.
The dehydrator was an ugly, brown plastic silo, but whatever. It had five trays. It made jerky. And fruit roll-ups. And banana chips. That was that mattered. To this day I still value function over aesthetics.
I asked my dad for it. Begged. Pleaded. Didn't he understand? This was going to change our lives! Unlimited food-supply forever! Or something! Dad was unmoved. If I wanted it, I was going to have to save my allowance. The Food Dehydrator cost $60 at the time, and when you make $3 a week in allowance, that's an eternity. But I was determined. Months grinded by, and when I finally had enough, he called the toll-free 800 number. Then it was just a matter of waiting out the six-to-eight weeks for delivery. Cue pubescent embolism.
Now, I had wanted and/or owned other electronics in the past—the original Nintendo, the Turbo Graphics 16—and they were great. But those were toys, this was a tool. A real gadget. It made stuff. It could feed people. It was going to make our lives better. It was going to give me something to do over at dad's house where I was further away from my friends. Where we were at each other's throats a lot of time. This would be a point of focus. Surely we could come together on jerky, right?
And we did. Those early jerky-making sessions were lab science. We let it dry too long and it turned granite-hard. We used too much liquid smoke and poisoned ourselves. We had way too much salt in the marinade. But then, gradually, we got better. We used the Dial-o-Matic Food Slicer (which came "free" with the dehydrator) to slice apples and then dry them. It was great. Over the years I would make all flavors of beef jerky, turkey jerky, and salmon jerky that would melt in your mouth, and I'd try to dry every fruit you can imagine (including watermelon, which created a gigantic pool of sticky, carrion-smelling syrup on my floor).
Its beauty lies in its simplicity. Five plastic trays with a lid. At the bottom, there's a coil that heats up. You want to turn it on, you plug it in. You want to turn it off, you unplug it. That's it. There are no moving parts and it's completely silent. Yeah, there are bigger, better, faster, fancier dehydrators out there, but Ron Popeil said his dehydrator would last a lifetime, and so far it has.
For the last 22 years, I have brought this thing cross-country and back three times. It's made comfort food in every apartment I've lived in. I'll have stretches of a year or two where I won't use it, then I'll dust it off, and it'll start up just like it did the first time. Sure, it's got more company on the shelves now than it ever did before; blenders, and juicers, and sandwich presses, and electric knife sharpeners, digital thermometers, bread machines, steamers, coffee makers, scales, soda fountains... it's chaos in my cabinets, but that's okay. My weird, obscure kitchen gadgets still give me that warm, "everything's going to be alright" feeling. Not to a freaky, unhealthy, hoarder extent, but in a way the reminds me of my past, of my family, and of all the jerky along the way.
Ronco still sells its Food Dehydrator. The plastic is clear now, and the price has been lowered to 30 bucks (which is a crazy good deal, though it seems the new trays may have a tendency to melt), but I have no intention of replacing mine. Even if it's slow. Even if it's a pain in the ass to manually rotate the trays. Even if it's permanently caked in dust. It's mine. It belonged to the kid-version of me. It still works just fine, and it shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.