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.
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.
WOODEN SALAD BOWL AND TOSSERS
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.
BREVILLE SANDWICH TOASTER
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.