INSPECT A GADGET
How much thought do you put into those utensils you use every day in the kitchen? Ever wondered about their evolution? Author Tim Hayward has...
Author Tim Hayward uncovers the unsung genius of kitchen gadgets.
It’s sometimes the smallest things we take for granted. Tim Hayward turns this idea on its head with his new book The Modern Kitchen, which examines the everyday items that serve us so well and yet never get their due. After reading his analysis, you’ll look at the contents of your cupboards and drawers in a whole new light. Dish chats to the Uk-based author about his research and what’s in his own arsenal.
Today, we regard the kitchen as the heart of our home. It’s where we get together as families, where we do the daily work of feeding ourselves and those we love. Yet the kitchen in a modern Western house is a bizarre hybrid – part leisure space, part work space – simultaneously a room and, when “fitted” with a unique combination of furniture, trimmings and appliances, a single, desirable “consumer durable”.
There is nowhere in daily domestic life where design impinges quite as much as in the kitchen – where Le Corbusier’s dictum that the home should be “a machine for living”, or Louis H. Sullivan’s observation that “form ever follows function”, are more in evidence. In a society that largely rejected modernism in architecture, the appliances, the furniture, the kitchen itself are the surviving exemplars of the philosophy: design with a practical rigour that cuts through any amount of romantic nostalgia.
All most of us know of traditional kitchens comes from two sources: cookbooks and the heritage industry. Right up until the 20th century, cookbooks lived not in the kitchen with the cooks but in the libraries of masters and mistresses, used for the “guidance” of often illiterate staff. For the aristocracy and most of the middle class, “cooking” meant the work done in kitchens staffed by servants. This was the section of society with surplus wealth, who could make choices about food and eating. They ate good food but, in accordance with rigid social convention, rarely entered the place where it was prepared.
For me, the story of the modern kitchen begins as servants disappear and as working people attain the means to own and equip their own kitchens. It is not perhaps a meaningful idea in the historical or anthropological sense, but for me it’s when “ordinary people” enter kitchens and set about the business of cooking that the space starts to become interesting.
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 respective of them. Every object has a design history; some manufactured objects have corporate “origin myths”. All are worthy of attention. After all, if everyday objects cannot tell powerful stories, why do we have museums?
I’m a little more obsessive about kitchens than most. For me it’s not just where I cook and eat with my family, but also a place of work – a study, laboratory and studio. Part of the reason I love spending time in it is that every single object is selected and placed carefully and daily judged for its utility. If a single one fails, I am ruthless in editing it out.
The kitchen is a constantly mutating expression of self – and I suspect this is more than a little true of everyone. The home kitchen, its layout, set-up and selection of kit has always been a surprisingly neat illustration of our beliefs, tastes, aesthetics and aspirations – simultaneously the heart of our homes and a vivid snapshot of our domestic lives.
Can you tell us a bit about your career path and how it has lead to The Modern Kitchen?
I was lucky enough to get an art school education so I was immersed in design and art history. I cooked professionally for a while but moved into advertising. I think it was this latter that got me most interested in the objects in this book. Although there’s a great deal of pure “design” in the items, it’s their importance as almost disposable consumer objects that’s fascinating. It’s why they’re so relevant to us even if they don’t necessarily find their way into museums. The history of the domestic kitchen really is, in many ways, the history of modern consumerism.
Any surprises in researching the book?
What a great question! I was amazed that what I’d always called an “egg slicer” was no such thing. Many British households have one of these things… its a sort of mesh of stretched wires that closes over a dished metal base. We put a hard-boiled egg into it and close it and it comes out badly sliced in about the same amount of time it would have taken you to cut it well with a knife. What really surprised me was that every other country in Europe calls this thing a “mushroom slicer” – which, incidentally, it does brilliantly – and can’t imagine why we’d ever need to slice eggs.
Do you have a fondness for any particular kitchen implement?
My grandmother’s spring-style whisk. I’ve had it for years and it is actually, genuinely magical. I’ve never split a sauce or failed with
“Every object has a design history; some manufactured objects have corporate ‘origin myths’. All are worthy of attention. After all, if everyday objects cannot tell powerful stories, why do we have museums?”
a mayonnaise whenever I’ve used it. When someone put it through the dishwasher years ago and the handle fell off, I was so bereft that I cast a new handle for it in epoxy. Nobody’s allowed to touch it now. It’s as ugly as hell but it still works like Harry Potter’s wand.
You’ve said in the book you’ve strictly edited your own kitchen items – what didn’t make the cut?
Food processors, electric pasta makers, a special vertical saucepan for asparagus… God, the list is endless. All I can tell you is that my local charity shop think I’m the greatest benefactor since Bill Gates. What can I say… it’s an addiction.
If you could only have five gadgets in the kitchen, what would they be?
A good knife, a Peugeot pepper grinder, a 12” cast-iron skillet, my grandma’s whisk and a tasting spoon.
Fondest memory of your childhood kitchen?
I was fascinated by a hand cranked egg-whisk. Mainly, I admit, because it made an amazing ray-gun for shooting space monsters… but I think that’s a legitimate thing. I suppose the fondest memory is the general feeling of the kitchen. A kind of loving retreat – back then ruled by the women of the family – a place I could always be assured of warmth, attention and, of course, food.
Are you a keen cook? What would you say is your signature dish?
I am. I have all sorts of favourite, show-off signature dishes, but I only really impress myself when I turn out scrambled eggs as good as Bill Grainger’s.
What do you think is the most clever piece of kitchen kit invented so far?
It would have to be the skillet. I’ve got a couple of books on outback cooking that prove you can cook pretty much anything with a skillet and I’ve seen chefs use them to turn out heartbreakingly beautiful dishes. Nothing else is quite as versatile.
Are you a fan of kitchens with gadgets on display? Or do you like to tuck them away?
A clean bench is the sign of an ordered mind. I’d rather impress people with my scrambled eggs than a shiny array of consumer goods.
How do you feel about automated gadgets as opposed to manual?
To be honest, I’m not a rampant traditionalist. I mean, I’m the first to crack out the stand mixer with a dough hook rather than spend hours hand-kneading bread. The whole history of the modern kitchen has been one of technological advance and innovation. What’s interesting is the things that have survived and those that haven’t.
What’s the gadget you wish you’d designed?
The Microplane grater. In recent memory, it’s been the single item that’s most made me think “Yes… that’s definitely an improvement”.
Who will be interested in your book?
I hope it will be people like me. People interested in food, design, science or social history… or maybe just geeks who love trivia.
What do you hope people will get out of it?
I confess to being a total nerd and enthusiast. I had an absolute blast researching and writing it and was constantly entertained by the weird stuff that cropped up. I just hope I can pass that on to readers.
Tim Hayward is a writer, broadcaster and restaurateur. The Modern Kitchen is his fourth book.
This is an edited extract from The Modern Kitchenby Tim Hayward. Photography by Sarah Hogan. Published by Quadrille, RRP $42.99.