I’ve been going through drawers and cabinets of kitchen stuff, realizing all that I have that I seldom use, and thinking about what’s really important. Going through stuff challenges the emotions and, at the same time, feels good like nothing else does. So far, I’ve made two trips to the Goodwill store. By the looks of the steady stream of box-toting people emptying their excess stuff into those bins before and after me, I’m not alone in my urge to lighten up.
Discerning need from want is not easy in this material world of ever more specialized gadgets, tools and stuff. Just like the satisfaction of searching for and finding the finest ingredients for cooking, the seductive allure of the “perfect” knife, grater, garlic crusher or egg slicer is powerful. That the “work” of cooking might be made easier or more efficient is, by some strange chemistry, motivation enough to keep right on building what I now recognize as a heap of dusty stuff. Way more stuff than I need, by any stretch of the word’s definition.
We’ve come a long way. I remember a day, now decades ago, when the work of the kitchen was done at the kitchen table. Kitchens were simple: a stove, sink, refrigerator and a table. No long counters or work islands in sight. I remember my mother peeling and cutting potatoes while seated at the kitchen table. She transformed that pile of potatoes with one and only one tool: a small paring knife.
I’m pretty sure that the urge to cut anything and everything with a paring knife must be in my DNA. Standing over a pot of simmering soup, I’ll slice vegetables right into the pot with that little knife. So deeply engrained is that motion—a sort of easy squeezing of thumb into curled fingers, knife moving as an extension of the thumb—that it’s nearly mindless in its simplicity. If I need more control, I’ll reach for the cutting board and my long chef’s knife. I have a tiny manual knife sharpener that keeps each knife ready for service. It seems that the longer I cook, the simpler my equipment needs become.
I have nine knives: all of them handily poised for service on a magnetic knife hanger within an arm’s reach at all times. And one almost razor sharp cleaver, that made its way to me (as a gift) all the way from China, sits in its protective box, too far out of sight to prompt me to use it. When I do, I am in awe of its power. I’m pretty sure I could do serious damage with that cleaver if serious damage needed to be done; it’s that sharp and that heavy. Every knife has its purpose, and I like to think I’m skilled at using each one of them. But I don’t use them—at least not often enough.
And that’s just the knives.
Going through the cabinet of baking dishes and casseroles, peering deep into corners that hadn’t seen light for fifteen years, I saw before me a sort of timeline of my cooking adventures and ghosts of kitchens past. The hand-me-downs I started out with in my first apartment; more hand-me-downs when parents died or downsized and moved on to new horizons. The odd baking pan or casserole discovered on shopping trips, not previously known but then—suddenly—needed. Bundt pans, springform pans, fluted molds and blackened cookie sheets that have seen generations of gingerbread men come to life.
Maybe it’s my recent immersion into family history, followed by an inevitable and growing fascination with all things eighteenth century, but I’ve come to feel the weight of all this stuff as unnecessary distraction. Good cooking can’t possibly be about having the right pan, the right knife and every perfect gadget for every specific task. Good cooking, I believe, has a lot more to do with knowing what to do with food and how to turn simple, fresh ingredients into a nourishing meal than it has to do with stuff. Butter and love, as the words on the trivet in my mother’s kitchen taught me. That’s what good cooking is.
So, I’m considering each item in my kitchen with new questions. Do I love it? Does it mean something to me or connect me to a person or a memory that I want to hold close? Has it proven itself useful, versatile and trustworthy? Does it do the job every time? Do I reach for it time and time again, knowing it’s exactly what I need? Could I use it in the dark? Does it feel good to hold? Was it a special gift?
Notice that I’m not evaluating each item’s technological pedigree, quality components, celebrity endorsements or retail price.
That’s my grandmother in the photo above, baking a cake. It was April 18, 1943, my grandfather’s 59th birthday. That egg beater whirligig gadget she’s using was not quite the cutting edge gadget of the day: electric mixers had been invented decades before, but wouldn’t come into broad use for a few more years. (Show me a modern cook who would attempt to bake a cake from scratch with a manual egg beater.) I don’t remember my grandmother’s cakes, but I’m guessing they were quite fine, with or without cutting edge technology in her kitchen.
What’s important to you in your kitchen these days, and how do you decide?