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‘Now we are cooking with gas’, and paying with massive bills


He won an Oscar for Ingrid Bergman in the film “gas light”, and delivered the auction of a daffy duck cartoon.

Right now, two companies are hoping to raise the price of natural gas for 25 million Californians who are already gutting it through a couple of blows: a punishing winter and the king’s bailout gas heating bills to top it off.

Also on the rise: interest in research, as a Stanford study on gas stovesreiterating the health and climate risks of a whole panoply of gas-powered appliances: water heaters, ovens, clothes dryers, and that soup-making and cookie-baking device, the gas stove.

Natural gas is a fossil fuel, just like oil that is refined into gasoline, and burning it can produce some of the same nasty, unpleasant gunk for humans. Most natural gas is methane, which can explode in a confined space.

That bit of science came to Angelenos in 1985, when methane gas exploded in the basement of a Ross discount store near the farmers’ market; 23 people were injured. The city’s vast methane gas field extended to the site near downtown chosen for a large school complex. It took 20 years of intermittent construction, destruction, and mitigation of methane and earthquake hazards before a school was finally built and opened there.

Worse was yet to come. In 2015, the gas release from Aliso Canyon underground gas storage created perhaps the most damaging impact on the environment. natural gas leak in the nation’s history.

About 15% of the natural gas the nation uses goes to our homes, and recent numbers from the Census Bureau are as follows: 61 million water heaters, 58 million furnaces, 20 million clothes dryers, and about 40 million domestic stoves.

In total, the greenhouse gases that these stoves can expel amount to as much as half a million cars worthwhich is roughly the number of cars on the road in front of you when you’re trying to get home early on a Friday.

In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, the Census Bureau’s housing survey finds eight out of 10 of us they are cooking with gas.

Does that phrase awaken any memories in you? Ought.

“Now you’re cooking with gas” is the catchphrase from the advertising campaign that launched millions of pilot lights. He helped sell millions of indoor natural gas appliances, foremost among them.

Deke Houlgate was a football publicist who devised the holgate system to decide the teams for the national college football championship. He was also an executive with the American Gas Assn., and it was there, before World War II, that he came up with the phrase.

He also knew some of the writers for comedian Bob Hope, and soon the “cook” line was appearing in Hope’s repartee, Jack Benny’s riffs, and that Looney Tunes cartoon. It eventually morphed into a home front catchphrase, meaning “Now you’ve got the idea” or “Now you’re doing it right.”

A newspaper comic published in 1943 employs the phrase “cooking with gas.”


I heard it from my grandparents; you may have heard that yours does the same thing. In the 1960s, the glamorous actress Marlene Dietrich, who wore an apron as gleefully as a Travis Banton dress, wrote in a recipe book that “Every recipe I give is closely related to gas cooking.”

The gas industry made sure to publicize Dietrich’s endorsement. He was working hard to get Americans to sell gas-powered appliances, as opposed to the all-electric homes promoted by General Electric spokesman-actor Ronald Reagan.

By the turn of the century, natural gas was already widely used for street lighting. Then, when it was supplanted by the brighter glow of electricity, gas companies sought new markets and built ever more reliable pipelines to supply them.

Gas had an almost fortuitous public relations advantage: its name.

anthony leiserowitz is director of the climate change communication program at Yale University. At first, “natural” distinguished it from other gases, such as coal gas, and denoted something that came directly out of the ground.

“It wasn’t originally intended as a marketing thing,” he said, “but it is, of course, the term the industry has used for the last 130 years.” Recently, its “tremendous advantage as a marketing term is because the term ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ in the 1960s and 1970s has come to develop a lot of positive associations around it, almost like a halo.”

“You can see it in the grocery store: all the products that they sell you with the word ‘natural’ on them,” Leiserowitz said. “It’s not like ‘organic’ – there’s a strict definition and you have to adhere to certain standards there. But ‘natural’ is wide open.” And “in America today, we think of ‘natural’ as being very good for you, although,” he says with a smile in his voice, “arsenic is natural!”

Consumers already tend to mix “organic” and “natural.” And, says Leiserowitz, “the industry is very happy to have this term because it distinguishes them from other fossil fuels. We don’t think of natural gas as dirty and polluting as other fossil fuels. When you just call the gas for what it is, methane, it’s interesting to see how the associations change, (that) people have very different perceptions.”

Understandably, then, says Leiserowitz, manufacturers and promoters of natural gas “don’t want me now to have a new association with their gas stove.” The success of natural gas appliances is “highly vulnerable to research that says burning methane in your kitchen is potentially harmful to your family.”

The image of natural gas received a polish, short and wacky, from the Trump administration in 2019. In a press release, the Department of Energy called natural gas “Liberty Gasoline” and praised the export of “molecules of American freedom” to the world.

With the potential health consequences to the fore—yes, I wrote that—the stove is now the industry’s mainstay of campaigning, and for some Republicans to take up the cry, “They’re coming for your gas stoves!” (Bumper sticker version: They’re not. Although California and Los Angeles are phasing out new gas hookups.) A dozen years ago Americans heard something similar, “They’re coming for your light bulbs!” the political outcry against new light bulb efficiency standards.

A 1930s newspaper ad for an Electrolux gas refrigerator offered for $195.

Gas refrigerators? This 1930s Kansas newspaper ad calls an Electrolux model “absolutely safe.” In the late 1990s, officials warned of the dangers of carbon monoxide from a different brand of gas refrigerator that was still in use.


Rebecca Leber is a climate journalist at Vox, and before that at Mother Jones magazine. She has written frequently about the 21st century gas industry ad campaign, which goes far beyond Bob Hope’s jokes about “cooking with gas” and a unarguably cheesy four minute long “rap” video from 1988 extolling gas cooking, with safety tips.

Now, Leber says, social media influencers — like chefs and supposedly everyday people — post personal testimonials. The subtext, Leber says, is “how vital the gas stove is to an industry that otherwise has no products that Americans really care about in the way that they are passionate about the gas stove.”

Four decades ago, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the EPA were considering regulations on indoor air pollution risks and the gadgets that create them. “There was a lot of pushback,” Leber discovered. “The headlines at the time sounded very familiar to what we have seen in recent months.”

Today’s PR campaign has a more nuanced mission than selling appliances. Leber believes that, beyond improvements to gas stove ventilation (not always available to tenants and people in older buildings), a metamessage invoking the presence of apple pie from a stove in a home” it can be used to drive a wedge in the fight against climate initiatives across the country, (where) climate change activists are pushing for cities and states to phase out gas in new buildings.” The gas industry, she is convinced, is campaigning heavily because it is concerned about losing new markets and losing the market share it already has due to climate change and anti-pollution regulations.

In general, people “don’t feel very convinced about what heats their homes or heats their water, as long as it works. But “using the stove to trigger this emotional response, to capture the popular imagination.”

Whatever publicity techniques are implemented, don’t expect a revival of anything like that hip-hop number from 1988, where young dancers in chef hats Jiffy Pop assure you in song that “Natural gas is fun!” ! Natural gas is clean!”