A blog meant to represent, as most blogs do, extracts or excepts from day-to-day life.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

On Kitchen Gadgets: Cutting and Slicing

This is the first in what I hope turns into a series about kitchen gadgets and how they help or hinder the cook's kitchen.

I went on a little Williams-Sonoma shopping spree the other day. I filled my online shopping cart with forty-three gadgets that do what a couple good knives could do otherwise. Total bill for the shopping spree? $1,187.67, before shipping. I didn't get as far as shipping, because I feel that all but a few of these gadgets are unnecessary. I'd even say that all but a few of these gadgets are a threat to humanity. Read on, reader.

The gadgets (some of them): tomato slicer, onion dicer, onion chopper, onion mill, garlic dicer, garlic slicer, two or three types of garlic choppers, egg slicer, mozzarella slicer, butter slicer (!), truffle slicer, herb slicer, herb mill, herb shears, tomato knife (two types), citrus knife, mango pitter, avocado slicer, shrimp shears, shrimp deveiner, three or four types of vegetable peelers, mandolins, two types of julienne slicer things, mezzalunas, pizza slicers, and so on and on and on.

I don’t own any of these gadgets, but I’d like to own a few. I’d like a really nice mandolin, a mezzaluna, and a truffle slicer. A well crafted mandolin is a beautiful thing. It would be really nice to own, although I’d rarely use it. I would use, however, a mezzaluna for mincing herbs in large quantity. A mezzaluna is pretty much a knife, though, right? Maybe it doesn’t even belong in this discussion of knife replacements. And a truffle slicer, or truffle shaver as they are sometimes called, is more of a status symbol than kitchen utility: owning one of these things says, “not only do I eat truffles, but I own a tool whose sole purpose is to slice them.”

Otherwise, these gadgets are ridiculous. They discourage good knife skills and clutter the kitchen. The last thing a cook needs is a cluttered kitchen. Let’s look at a few of these gadgets in detail.

The butter cutter: isn’t butter like one of the easiest things to cut? “Like a hot knife through butter.” The simile says it all.

The mango pitter: I know mangoes are a little bit difficult to core, but learning how to core a mango quickly with a good paring knife is a good skill to have. I’ve had many opportunities to show off my mango skills in front of unlearned and frustrated party hosts unable to manage mangoes. Slicing through the fruit, knowing exactly where the core lies, and expertly avoiding it is a skill that never fails to impress.

Herb slicers: those roller slicer things, you know? They never seem to work. They just sort of mash the herbs instead of cutting them. Mashed herbs lose their sharp edge, both in physical appearance and gustatorily. The other thing I don’t like about these herb roller slicers is that their users rely on them too much and lose sight of the fact that a lot of times the dish is far better if the herbs are torn rustically instead of sliced or julienned uniformly.

The same goes for onions and garlic. It’s important to know when to dice, when to mince, when to crush, and when to chop rustically. When we depend on machines to do the prep work for us, we give up contact and intimacy with our ingredients.

Using these gadgets discourages good kitchen skills and leads to a dependence on technology—decadence, cf. Rousseau. We lose the well honed skills (word play well intentioned, thank you) and the culinary challenges that motivate us to cook. As our knives and our kitchen skills dull, our dependence on the gadgets increases. I envision the Last Man having his garlic mechanically diced to perfect 1/10-inch precision, but having lost sight of the joy of mis en plats and the indiscernible taste and textural qualities of his product.

I’d submit that four good knives, which might cost a few hundred dollars, are all the home cook really needs: a large and small chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a bread knife. Buy these and a good sharpener, too, then go into your kitchen, reader, and throw all your cutting and slicing gadgets into a pile on the floor. Pick them up, one by one, and ask yourself, “is this a knife? Is this a beautiful and well crafted machine? Does owning this improve my social status?” If the answer to those questions is no, then throw the gadget to the trash. Keep your knives sharp and your knife skills sharper, for the sake of humanity itself!


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