The Cutting Edge

Grammie, baking a cake.

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?

A Super Superfood Breakfast

Superfood Breakfast Ingredients

When is good good enough? When it comes to nourishing our bodies, it makes sense to eat high-quality food—the best. Nutritionists agree that skimping on breakfast is a bad thing. When we rush out the door without breakfast, by mid-morning, we’re hungry, cranky, light-headed or worse. Developing a reliable breakfast routine is one of the basic building blocks of a healthy day. Continue reading

Marking November Milestones

Barred Island Preserve, Deer Isle

“We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.”  ~ May Sarton

November is a weighty month for me, heavy with memories and dates of significance. It’s also a dark month. As the days creep toward solstice, becoming ever colder and grayer, the inevitability of winter is evident. November can be tough.

That didn’t stop me from Continue reading

Pullin’ It Out of the Hole Cookin’

Making Vegetable Stock

Despite the number of cookbooks on my shelf, I believe I was born with a predisposition to winging it in the kitchen. And, as long-time readers are probably aware, I’m content that way. I happily toss together all manner of stews, soups, frittatas, stir fries and salads, even venturing now and then into the world of improv baking. The results may not win me blue ribbons, but they’re always perfectly edible, even fit to be shared.

Simmering away in my kitchen right now is Continue reading

Unearthing Stories of the Past

Boat in Fog at Stonington Harbor

There is properly no history, only biography.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I joke about unearthing my ancestors; really, it’s their stories I’m after. Sifting through the scant evidence of existence left behind by my grandparents, great, great and even greater, has become a passion, if not a full-blown obsession. Dusting off the simplest details of their lives has ignited the flames of my imagination like nothing ever has—ever. With all my heart, I want to know them and to bring them to life. Continue reading

The Illusion of Control

Heuchera

The garden is generous with metaphors for living. Bone tired, stooped beyond straightening, encrusted in dirt and decorated with prickly seeds, I’ve harvested more truths in the garden than I could ever have known were ripe for the picking.

Each truth, in its time, and stunningly clear. When I was depressed, my garden urged me to wonder about what next spring would bring, gently coaxing me on, convincing me the seasons ahead would bring good things. When I was bored, it filled me with wonder. When I thought I had nothing to give, I saw all the plants that needed dividing and, therefore, sharing. The spirits of the garden are generous, indeed. Continue reading

Lessons from Peru: We First

Granary at Ollantatambo, Peru

Just as I hoped, with ankle pain slowly subsiding and memories of wheelchairs fading into the mist, I’m beginning to understand a few of the many lessons learned on my recent trip to Peru.

Peru lives up to its lore. The high peaks of the Andes, rising to the clear blue sky, capped with snow and ice, surround the mountain traveler with whisperings of ancient spirits. Indeed, the mountain people listen to these whisperings, looking to the apus for wisdom and guidance.

Life is not easy above 8 or 10,000 feet. Continue reading

Hungry for Change

Dandelion Flower

This post relates to Week Six of Hungry for Change: Food, Ethics and Sustainability, a discussion course offered though the Northwest Earth Institute. Readings featured this week were written by Christian Schwagerl, Mark Bittman, Jonathan Bloom, Roger Bybee, Lisa Abend, Raj Patel and Anna Lappe. This week (actually a few weeks ago) was our last week, and was quickly followed by a celebration potluck a week or so later.

A few weeks ago, this six-week discussion course ended with readings and questions about waste, better ways of managing our food system and working toward change.

Our group, by this time, had settled into a comfortable rhythm together. Honest conversation came easily to us by now, and we’d long since established a common philosophy that “it’s all good.” Continue reading

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