Somewhere in my basement is a shelf loaded with cooking implements that my kitchen no longer has room for, including a bread machine, pasta maker, food dryer and an enormous fish poacher, to name a few. Some kitchen gadgets were trendy purchases, but others came to me unexpectedly. The fish poacher, for instance, was borrowed from a friend living in a small apartment who refused to take it back. (I later learned that he had been cramming it under his bed.) Certain friends get to see my basement collection, referring to it as my food museum, and one of them, an amateur material culturist, even claimed the ability to interpret recent culinary history by examining and dating my stuff. I, on the other hand, think of these objects as merely occupying off-site storage, right there in case I need them.
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As an enthusiastic cook, I like to be assured that I can try any recipe I wish without being inhibited by the lack of essential tools to make the dish. So, over the years I have accumulated an array of appliances and gadgets that have allowed me to cook with confidence. But I realize I walk a fine line between needing and using what I have and being wasteful and indulgent. The wonderful writer, Laurie Colwin, brought this to my attention when she described her own humble equipment in an essay called “The Low-Tech Person’s Batterie de Cuisine.” (You can see where she is going with this.)
She takes enormous pride in the fact that she gets along with a minimum of cooking gear. So, for instance, she forgoes a food processor because she can accomplish her goals with sharp knives and a box grater, although she does confess that she keeps a box of Band-Aids nearby to deal with scraped knuckles. She claims “Most things are frills — few are essential. It is perfectly possible to cook well with very little. Most of the world cooks over fire without any gadgets at all.”
Not all kitchen gadgets are equal
This minimalist philosophy is to be admired, I suppose, but as far as I’m concerned not to be emulated. I love my electric coffee-maker and its twin, an electric coffee bean grinder. I use my food processor regularly and adore my Kitchen-Aid mixer even though I know I can whip up cakes with a wooden spoon and mixing bowl and knead bread by hand without a dough hook. But, I don’t want to. I love the fact that I can produce a hearty whole grain loaf without wearing myself out.
And I also love certain smaller kitchen gadgets like my potato masher and an unusual pair of five-bladed scissors I bought in Paris that snip up herbs in seconds. Another pair of kitchen scissors that may be my most favorite gadget of all time is shaped at an angle and has the ergonomic ability to cut up a chicken with surprising ease.
I believe this tool originated in hospital emergency rooms and is used to cut through clothing in a flash to get at wounds and broken bones. After I had discovered this tool for kitchen purposes, I ordered a dozen to send to various relatives and friends who found my unexpected gift eccentric, but that’s because they weren’t devoted cooks or maybe because they had encountered the tool in an emergency room and it brought back bad memories. In any case, I adore this ingenious scissors and think that every cook should have one.
I want to point out, however, that I am not interested in only the latest or most unusual items that nobody else has. I also love my mortar and pestle, tools scholars trace back to antiquity. Although grinding spices by hand requires elbow grease, this ancient implement allows the cook to keep control of the process, unlike blenders and food processors that can pulverize ingredients to smithereens in seconds. I use a box grater regularly for grating small amounts of cheese and appreciate its low-tech efficiency, but prefer not to use it for grating large volumes of potatoes to make pancakes for a crowd. That’s where the grating attachment for the food processor comes in.
While I confess to taking pleasure in my arsenal of cooking equipment, I think I am discrete in what I buy, generally disapproving of many new items I see in cookware shops and catalogs, especially those designed for marginal single purposes. I wonder who would buy a large appliance with the sole function of making waffle ice cream cones, or a pan designed expressly for baking stuffed peppers when any old pan will do. In a recent excursion to a cookware store, I even saw an item I consider to be a killjoy, a machine for making cotton candy at home. Some foods are meant to be eaten only on special occasions and in particular places, and should not be usurped for home use. Eating cotton candy in a kitchen robs a child of the pungent and heady atmosphere of a carnival or circus, places where cotton candy belongs.
Top photo: Kitchen scissors for cutting herbs. Credit: Barbara Haber