While our families and friends are busy re- laxing this Labor Day holiday, we who cook for them will probably be peeling fruit, shucking corn, tossing salad and brooding over grilled chicken for a last-day-of-summer's barbecue. Will anyone celebrate us, laboring away at these kitchen tasks that we shoulder every day?
Don't hold your breath.
Let's tip our toques to one another, then. Hurray not only for scientists and salespeople and truck drivers and machinists, but for those who scramble eggs and simmer the pasta sauce!
Now that we've gotten that apron-beating out of the way, it's back to slicing, dicing and preheating the oven. Before we completely simmer down, though, let's consider what the home chef really craves on Labor Day - not applause, but a few labor-saving cooking gadgets. Surgeons extol their high-tech scalpels, carpenters swear by the latest hammers and saws. Might not a cook's work be lessened by new kitchen tools?
Yes and no. Conversations with food experts, culinary historians, retailers and cooking-equipment manufacturers suggest that although the cupboard is more crowded than ever with great gizmos, none can make dinner appear like magic.
"People buy gadgets not because it makes cooking more fun, but less painful," said Alex Lee, president of OXO International, maker of tools such as a mango slicer, an angled measuring cup (for easier viewing) and a salad spinner that's operated with one hand. What's best about these products, Lee says, is "they make you feel in control ... and this confidence is half of what makes someone a good chef."
"In the kitchen, there is no one tool that is going to do it all," said Mike Bevill, a salesman at Le Gourmet Chef in Columbia. "But we cater here to the idea of self-reliance. Our customers take a lot of pride in doing things by hand, and some gadgets can make stuff a little easier."
Jan Longone, curator of American culinary history at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, takes a more skeptical view. She feels many kitchen-tool vendors perpetuate a misconception that meal preparation, if done correctly, can be a snap.
"Cooking is work. There's no way around it. Even if you are the best chef in the world, when you are finished, the kitchen's a mess," she said.
A closer look
In my kitchen, am I master or slave? With this question in mind, I recently canvassed several kitchen-implement stores. Here was a bewildering variety of tools, all promising to make my cooking easier, more enjoyable and tastier. Though I wanted to believe such blandishments, I turned a sadder-but-wiser eye to some miracle cures.
No, I didn't need a wok, thank you, or a blender. A Cuisinart and the saucepans I already own can be pressed into double duty for a puree or stir-fry. Ditto for electric citrus juicers, lemon zesters and garlic peelers.
My chef's knife, wielded properly, can accomplish all these tasks. (By the way, no method for peeling garlic is faster than flattening a whole clove with the side of a knife.) I somehow even managed to put a mandoline back on the shelf, deciding I could live without crinkle-cut carrots.
To my surprise, many devices seem designed to create, not alleviate, anxiety. Progressive's Easy Oil Spreader raised the specter of loose bristles falling off a basting brush. A slicing device housing a stick of butter hints that peril awaits those who fail to measure out anything less or more than precisely a tablespoon.
It was easy to laugh at excesses like a creme brulee torch, ice cream sandwich maker or microwaveable spoons that change color, so you'll know exactly when food is hot enough to eat.
I was flummoxed, though, by the wide, wide world of whisks - for the record, there are flat, jug-, egg- and balloon-shaped models - and the plethora of wine openers and bar tools that lately have been created. How do I live without a Caipirinha pestle or a Mojito muddle?
"Today, most so-called labor-saving devices are anything but. Instead, they define a specific job that has to be done, then sell you a gadget to do it," said Linda Campbell Franklin of Bolton Hill, who's author of 300 Years of Kitchen Collectibles (Krause, 2003, $29.95). "Making the housewife or cook feel she is not doing the job right unless she has the right pan is a very American idea. Our whole country is one big marketing machine."
In my heart, I knew Campbell was right, so I tried mightily not to be seduced. Still, I ended up with several new toys: a Kyocera ceramic paring knife, a Silvermark Toss & Chop stainless-steel scissor/salad-tong combination, a StirChef "hands-free" saucepan stirrer and the Easy Oil Spreader (I'll admit it; I got spooked thinking of bristles in my barbecue). Finally, I grabbed a couple of Silpat cookie-sheet liners and, what the heck, an OXO mango slicer.
When I told Longone about my purchases, she chuckled for a moment, but actually sounded a little disappointed in me.
"It's trying, reading, talking and tasting that makes you a good cook, not equipment," she gently chided. "I am not afraid of new things, but the accumulation of so many gadgets that only serve a single purpose is a disaster. These don't address felt needs. At least not like the eggbeater did."
Crazy for gadgets
Fashion types swoon over Chanel suits. Automobile enthusiasts drool before Jaguar E-Class sports cars. Talk gadgets with any culinary expert, however, and they soon will get dewy-eyed about the eggbeater.
According to Longone, the first patent for this tool (which, of course, not only beat eggs but blended all kinds of things) was taken out by a Baltimorean, Ralph Collier, on Dec. 23, 1856.
"Before this came along, people only had the roughest forms of whisks, made of straw like you might brush a coat off with," she said. "The rotary eggbeater was a small device, with humble beginnings, but it captured the world's imagination and became a must-have. It made mixing an art."
A list of other truly revolutionary kitchen gadgets is surprisingly short: apple and vegetable peelers, can openers, electric toasters and the Cuisinart. Microwave ovens have a hung jury: They appear equally loved and reviled by chefs.
"Delicate work is always done by hand, say, making a rose from a radish," said Franklin. "But those gadgets that have truly changed the way we cook have always affected volume and speed."
By these standards, then, several of my purchases utterly failed. Progressive's Easy Oil Spreader dribbled marinade so slowly onto my grilled chicken, I gave it up and grabbed a basting brush, loose hairs or no.
Maybe I'm maladroit, but I couldn't quite get the hang of the mango slicer (though, I cherish OXO's salad spinner and angled measuring cup). And, the less said about the StirChef hands free saucepan stirrer, the better. I should have known something was amiss when the multi-paged instructions reminded me three separate times to begin using it only when food in the saucepan was cold.
On a brighter note, working with a Kyocera ceramic paring knife is a dreamy, nearly sensuous experience. The white blade is marvelously sharp and cuts through fruit or vegetables like they're softened butter. Flicking it around inside a green pepper, I had a heady rush, as if I were a neurosurgeon about to restore a patient's cognition.
The Silvermark scissor/salad tong handily turns large leaves of romaine, radicchio and arugula into bite-sized pieces for a salad. Best of all, Silpat cooking liners are nothing short of revelation.
Making roasted potatoes, I simply halved a few fingerlings, tossed them in a bowl with olive oil, salt, pepper and rosemary and put them into a 500-degree oven. Usually, I'd have to nurse them along with several shoves to prevent sticking and burning to the roasting pan. Instead, I ignored the potatoes completely for a half-hour and they slid off the Silpat crispy, golden-brown and delicious.
Are any of these gadgets our generation's can opener or eggbeater? Only time will tell. For now, I'll labor on, choosing to believe my kitchen chores have been ever so slightly lessened. If that's an illusion, fine. It's one I can work with.