Form and function are the twin peaks of kitchen design. Years of ergonomic trial and error, engineering triumphs and technological advances lie behind the utensils with which we cook and eat. Even the simple but beautiful shape of a wooden spoon.
Every era has its domestic gadgets and specialized equipment that reflect our social needs and aspirations: Think chicken bricks, fondue sets and yogurt makers. But as culture changes, so does our batterie de cuisine.
Kitchen drawers of the world are stuffed with … stuff. Some utensils are inherited, some bought in bursts of ambition or moments of weakness. They may not have disappeared from the market, but we no longer have a prime need for the items featured here.
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Some of these items are rightly obsolete and unnecessary, in much the same way as life is too short to stuff a mushroom. Others have a value that we have perhaps forgotten or a utility that cannot be bettered. So, let us just pause for thought before we send the following to the thrift store or garage sale. Or one day we might just regret having done so.
Fish knives and forks
“Phone for the fish knives, Norman” is the famous opening to Sir John Betjeman’s mocking ode to bourgeois life, “How To Get On In Society.”
Until the 1880s manuals recommended that fish be eaten using two ordinary table forks or one fork and a piece of bread, and unless you were wealthy enough to have solid silver (polished by one’s servants, of course) most cutlery in the 19th century was made from steel. Unfortunately this could react with acids in the fish sauces and both taint the flavor of the food and turn the steel black. So a separate set was kept for fish; subsequently, stainless steel solved the staining problem.
I think, however, it is not just fear of middle-class pretension that has seen the decline of the fish knife and fork but Fear of Bones. The fish knife was designed to bone, fillet and skin as required. However, when bone-free fillets are the popular choice, fish skills have become increasingly forgotten.
One lump, or two?
Sugar tongs need to be correctly manipulated, otherwise they will not successfully carry cube to cup. Rather like chopsticks.
Their origin lies back in the mid-1700s when they were called sugar nips or tea tongs: They pivoted on a fulcrum like a pair of scissors, but that made them costly to produce. They were basic household tools, nonetheless, but before using them you would have to cut the large cone-shaped sugar loaves into smaller chunks with an iron hammer and chisel.
Refined sugar was expensive and often kept in locked boxes. The mistress of the house would “nip” off neat lumps when needed for the dining room and tea table.
Sugar tongs made the task simpler, but they have fallen out of fashion as a) we eat less sugar; b) we use fewer cubes; and c) even if we do, it’s much simpler to grab a sugar cube and drop it in a cup of tea.
There is a saying the safest knife is the sharpest one, and the good chef steels his or her knives several times a day, drawing the blade across the rod at a 20-degree angle. Honing steels are used to realign blade edges by straightening them as opposed to actually sharpening them, a job that should be done once or twice a year.
However as Bee Wilson says in her fascinating book “Consider the Fork,” knowledge of how to keep a knife sharp has become a private passion rather than a universal skill. The traveling knife-grinder is practically no more: In his place are enthusiastic online communities, scattered workshops and mail services.
Part of the reason for this loss of common ability was the arrival of the food processor. If you can’t cut it yourself, then a machine will do it for you. Or someone else. Wielding a honing steel seems like something out of a Dickensian novel or a Sweeney Todd cartoon: It seems frightening, but it’s actually not too hard to learn. After all, a dull knife is a cook’s worst enemy. In fact, I really must follow my own advice one day.
A cross between fork and knife (unlike the spork, which is a fork-spoon hybrid and about which the less said the better), the pastry fork is sometimes viewed as an affectation. It is not high on the list of household items you cannot do without. Yet the three or four tines are designed to do a specific job and they do it well.
Pastry forks were devised by the Victorians as part of the complicated dining etiquette of the time. A guide to polite behavior written in 1859 was adamant: “What! A knife to cut that light, brittle pastry? No, nor fingers, never. Nor a spoon — almost as bad. Take your fork, sir, your fork!”
For right-handers, the left side of the fork is flattened so it can be used as a mini-knife to cut the food. For left-handers, the design is reversed, although some forks, as in the picture, are for the ambidextrous. Either way, the tines conveniently shovel the cream and pastry up to the mouth. The main drawback is you can’t lick your fingers.
The Victorians did not approve of eating food with the fingers. It was instant social death unless you kept to the prescribed rules. When it came to the dessert course, only after the grapes had been correctly cut was it permissible for diners to use their fingers. Grape scissors were part of an army of utensils that also included sardine tongs, oyster forks and lobster picks. Boy, those Victorian housewives knew how to spend, spend, spend.
“The Manners and Tone of Good Society” published in 1879 advised, “When eating grapes, the half-closed hand should be placed to the lips and the stones and skins adroitly allowed to fall into the fingers and quickly placed on the side of the plate, the back of the hand concealing the manoeuvre from view.”
I feel faint. Peel me a grape, Daisy.
There can be but one use for a melon baller. It is a gadget conceived for a single purpose — to cut little round balls from the flesh of melons. The small hole allows juice to drain during the process.
The basic technique is to press, rotate 180 degrees and scoop out the balls. You may have to execute two full rotations to make a perfect shape. It is a technique I have failed to master. My spheres are unruly, more like shards and curls, but I claim that as intended.
Some melon ballers, such as the one in the picture, have different sized bowls at each end. Beginners should not try to use them at the same time.
Crinkled curls or butter balls? Decisions, decisions. The curler is designed to produce decorative shapes from chilled butter. I have never had much success with this either, my attempts to create bijou curls have usually ended with a greasy mess until I saw the light and simply stopped trying.
Now the butter curler lives in the same retirement home drawer for old kitchen tools as the melon baller in a kind of fraternal companionship. One day they will come to life again.
I’m surprised you don’t need a license to own such a weapon of mass destruction. It’s a terrifying sight, rather like a primitive club topped with scary spikes guaranteed to bring out your inner caveman.
Made from wood or metal, meat tenderizers date from an era when tough old steaks needed a good beating to make them fit to chew. However, they no longer have a role given most mass-produced beef nowadays has been bred to be soft and pappy. Nor do they have a place in the vegetarian kitchen unless you want to use them to smash potato chips.
This thrift shop find makes me a little sad. It must have been someone’s pride and joy once, reserved for Sunday best and high tea, taken out in a rosy glow of genteel living. Made in the 1930s or ’40s, pressed glass condiment containers on a cruet stand were for salt, pepper, vinegar, oil and mustard, although it was unusual to have more than two or three to a set.
Does anyone even use the word “cruet” anymore? How many even know what it means? Or care? Pepper and salt mills or open bowls have long pushed cruets into domestic oblivion but they are poor substitutes to prop your newspaper against whilst you read at breakfast.
Sardine tin key
“Life is rather like a tin of sardines … we’re all of us looking for the key.” So started Alan Bennett’s famous “Beyond The Fringe” sketch. As it implied, you could never find the key when you needed it, could not open the lid fully so a little bit was always left in the corner, and chances were you would cut yourself on the tin’s sharp edge.
At one time, the metal key came in two pieces. The slotted part would slide onto the edge of the lid so you could roll it back, then the shovel-shaped bit would be used to lift out the sardines.
The easy-opening pull tab changed everything. There are those who hanker for the oil drips and bleeding fingers of ancient times, but they need to get a life. As far as I’m concerned the key can stay lost at the back of the kitchen drawer. Which is why it is not in the picture. RIP, sardine can key.
Main photo: Fish knives and forks. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman