In his new book, The Mod­ern Kitchen, writer and res­tau­ra­teur Tim Hay­ward traces the evo­lu­tion of the ev­ery­day ob­jects that changed the way we cook.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - News -

Tim Hay­ward tracks the evo­lu­tion of the ev­ery­day ob­jects that changed the way we cook.

For most of us our kitchens and the ob­jects in them are the def­i­ni­tion of “quo­tid­ian” – so or­di­nary that they seem in­signif­i­cant and near in­vis­i­ble. But ob­jects so very close to us are the ones best evolved to our lives and most re­flec­tive of them. Every ob­ject has a de­sign his­tory; some man­u­fac­tured ob­jects have cor­po­rate “ori­gin myths”. All are wor­thy of at­ten­tion.


In 1884, Willis John­son of Cincin­natti, Ohio, be­came one of the first African Amer­i­cans to re­ceive a patent. He in­vented a me­chan­i­cal egg beater that dif­fered from the ones we might see to­day in that the crank drove beat­ers in two large tanks. The idea was that in the pro­fes­sional bak­ery one tank could be cleaned while the other was in op­er­a­tion. With its large ca­pac­ity and range of in­ter­change­able beat­ers, his ma­chine could be said to re­sem­ble an early man­ual Ro­bot-Coupe but the key el­e­ment – a large cog driv­ing two small ones on the beater shafts – car­ried on into every cranked hand blender ever since.

In pro­fes­sional kitchens, meringues and cream had tra­di­tion­ally been whipped by hard-work­ing un­der­chefs with huge fore­arms and bal­loon whisks, but the hand-cranked whisk, its sim­ple gear­ing driv­ing the beater heads in an im­pos­si­ble blur of speed, made such del­i­cate con­fec­tions pos­si­ble in the home kitchen. It was a brave host who at­tempted a souff lé be­fore the in­ven­tion of the hand whisk, and a neg­li­gent host who didn’t once it was freely avail­able.


The wooden salad bowl with match­ing wooden tossers – prefer­ably pur­chased while on hol­i­day in Provence and never, ever washed – is a rit­ual ob­ject in the welle­quipped home kitchen. Restau­rants and other com­mer­cial es­tab­lish­ments have nat­u­rally avoided us­ing a com­mu­nal serv­ing ves­sel that can’t be prop­erly cleaned be­tween uses. How on earth did such an odd tra­di­tion arise?

In 1936, Amer­i­can food writer Ge­orge Rec­tor be­gan cham­pi­oning the wooden bowl in his pop­u­lar col­umns in The Satur­day Evening Post.

He claimed to have picked up the idea from a French chef called Hip­polyte Arnion and de­scribes an al­fresco meal where he be­lieved the bowl “flavoured” his green salad. From that point on­wards Rec­tor seemed al­most ob­sessed with his dis­cov­ery, mak­ing it his trade­mark gim­mick, and he re­peat­edly re­in­forced the idea that “af­ter you’ve been rub­bing your bowl with gar­lic and anoint­ing it with oil for some years, it will have ac­quired the patina of a Corinthian bronze and the per­son­al­ity of a 100-year-old brandy”. Soon the never-washed wooden salad bowl be­gan to crop up in kitchens across Amer­ica.

El­iz­a­beth David, when asked to pass judge­ment on the idea of rub­bing raw gar­lic into the bowl, is said to have re­sponded waspishly that it de­pended whether you were in­tend­ing to eat the bowl or the salad.


“What’s most strange about peel­ers is how weirdly re­gion­ally spe­cific they are. One would imag­ine the ac­tion of veg­etable peel­ing would be sim­i­lar the world over.”

The chef’s knife is a sur­pris­ingly late ad­di­tion to the home kitchen. Though pro­fes­sion­als have, for as long as any­one can re­mem­ber, wielded a large knife for tasks large or small, most home cooks have jus­ti­fi­ably found such a tool to be be­yond their needs and quite pos­si­bly dan­ger­ous. In the do­mes­tic set­ting, cut­ting was of­ten done sit­ting down and slic­ing veg to­wards the thumbs, with what­ever small knife was clos­est to hand. In a way this is the most nat­u­ral ap­proach and quite suf­fi­cient for home cooks. It was only the in­sis­tence of writ­ers like El­iz­a­beth David and Robert Car­rier in the

1950s that drove peo­ple to in­vest in the then state-of-the-art Sa­batier kitchen knife – lead­ing to a whole se­ries of changes in be­hav­iour rang­ing from reg­u­lar sharp­en­ing to chop­ping while stand­ing up.

The Sa­batier was a truly totemic piece of kit for the grow­ing band of keen home cooks. It was made of car­bon steel, which meant it went black when used on onions or lemons. It had to be sharp­ened reg­u­larly, you needed to take time to learn how to use it and you’d cut your­self many times in the process. It’s im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine any other piece of kitchen equip­ment sur­viv­ing such a learn­ing curve with­out be­ing dumped for some­thing sim­pler and safer, and yet such was the sym­bolic sig­nif­i­cance of the knife that home cooks per­sisted.

To­day, buy­ing one’s first ex­pen­sive kitchen knife is pretty much the defin­ing ac­tion by which food lovers de­clare them­selves – by bring­ing a pro tool into a home set­ting. In­vest­ing in a de­cent knife is felt to be the mo­ment at which one ceases merely to cook for one’s fam­ily and be­gins to be “a cook”.


The potato peeler means that even an un­skilled cook can do a good job of peel­ing veg­eta­bles quickly and safely.

The tra­di­tional pat­tern in the UK is for the blade to be in a straight line with the han­dle. It’s held in the same was as a par­ing knife, and the blade pulled to­wards the thumb. The favourite is the Lan­cashire peeler, eas­ily recog­nis­able by the or­ange string hold­ing the blade to the han­dle.

The Rex peeler was launched by the Zena com­pany in Switzer­land in 1947 and has re­mained un­changed ever since. It’s a ruth­lessly ef­fi­cient piece of kit with a skele­tal alu­minium han­dle and a fe­ro­ciously sharp steel blade po­si­tioned at 90 de­grees to it. Be­cause the peeler blade can’t be sharp­ened, most types need to be re­placed reg­u­larly, but for some rea­son the Rex type seems to go on for­ever, even when used to shave parme­san or choco­late.

The Rex, of­ten re­ferred to by chefs as the “speed peeler”, is used with a sort of whit­tling ac­tion. It cuts both ways and is am­bidex­trous by de­sign. The eye-gouger is made of the same blued steel that forms the blade and it’s hard to imag­ine any way it could be made more beau­ti­fully min­i­mal. The de­sign is con­sid­ered such a clas­sic it has fea­tured on Swiss stamps – pretty good for such a pro­saic item.

The Dal­son “Aussie peeler” was also de­signed in 1947, by the Dal­son­ware com­pany in Mel­bourne. It has the same kind of piv­ot­ing blade as the Rex but in line with the han­dle in the English fash­ion.

What’s most strange about peel­ers is how weirdly re­gion­ally spe­cific they are. One would imag­ine the ac­tion of veg­etable peel­ing would be sim­i­lar the world over and that the tool would have evolved to fit com­mon prac­tice. In­stead, many dif­fer­ent types have sprung up and dif­fer­ent cul­tures have adapted to their use.


The Bre­ville Com­pany, based in Mel­bourne, had been mak­ing elec­tri­cal equip­ment since be­fore the Sec­ond World War and mine-de­tect­ing equip­ment dur­ing it. Wit­ness­ing the be­gin­nings of a post-war boom, John O’Brien, son of the com­pany’s founder, launched a Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Cen­tre that rapidly be­came a global cen­tre of ex­cel­lence for small elec­tri­cal ap­pli­ances. Ac­cord­ing to the cre­ation myth, O’Brien no­ticed that his chil­dren loved jaf­fles, but some­times burned them­selves when the hot fill­ing squirted out un­con­trol­lably. O’Brien’s so­lu­tion was a heated press that sealed the sand­wich and cut it di­ag­o­nally.

The toasted-sand­wich maker be­came pop­u­lar all over the world, par­tic­u­larly with chil­dren. For a whole gen­er­a­tion, mak­ing a toastie was of­ten the first ex­pe­ri­ence of cook­ing for your­self. It was pop­u­lar with stu­dents and oth­ers liv­ing in ac­com­mo­da­tion with­out kitchens – a cheap and sim­ple ap­pli­ance that could cre­ate a whole hot meal with­out any other equip­ment.

Right: the Pres­tige hand mixer. Be­low: a wooden salad bowl and servers.

Left: Bre­ville sand­wich toaster. Op­po­site, clock­wise from top: the Rex peeler, the Lan­cashire peeler, Dal­son Aussie peel­ers. Far left: a Tada­fusa “Petty” knife.

This ex­tract from The Mod­ern Kitchen by Tim Hay­ward (Quadrille, an im­print of Hardie Grant, hbk, $39.99) has been re­pro­duced with mi­nor

GT style changes.

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