The riddle of the griddle

Why do we form relationships with some kitchen implements, and never hit it off with others?

Bee Wilson | September/October 2012

In a kitchen filled with tools, it is striking how often we find ourselves reaching for the same few old faithfuls to keep us company as we cook. We rummage in the utensil jar until we find exactly the right wooden spoon, seasoned from years of sauces, the one whose handle seems to mould itself to our hand. "I have measured out my life with coffeespoons," writes T.S. Eliot in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". I feel that I have measured out my life in pots and pans: the passing fancies, the betrayals, the enduring passions.

There is the old aluminium omelette pan, battered and burnished from nearly 15 years of use. I bought it soon after getting married, when I had just learned how to make Spanish omelettes, and would spend ages coaxing the eggs at the side of the pan with a spatula to get a satisfyingly rounded edge. Later, it became my go-to pancake pan for Saturday breakfast. Crêpes from any other pan never seemed to be as lacy or golden. But then someone—I won't say who—ruined its carefully honed surface by scouring it. Meanwhile, I decided that my new cast-iron griddle was a better bet for pancakes. So the old omelette pan doesn't come out of the drawer quite so often. 

Anthropologists would understand this affinity we feel for certain pieces of kitchenware. After all, whole civilisations have been named after the pots they left behind, such as the Beaker folk of the third millennium BC who travelled across Europe from the Iberian peninsula to Britain. Wherever they went, the Beaker folk left traces of bell-shaped drinking vessels made of rusty-coloured clay. Our own private preferences for this or that pot may be less absolute, but they still carry weight. 

As with human relationships, there is often little logic to the affection we feel for this or that piece of kitchen equipment. Many of the utensils I feel most strongly about are neither beautiful nor precious. When I brought my salad spinner, an ugly plastic thing, home from the shop, I had few expectations of it besides clean lettuce. This, it delivered. I pressed the knob up and down a few times, and it spun the salad greens like a toy carousel. Inside was fresh, dry romaine, ready for a Caesar salad. Job done. 

My feelings for the spinner didn't develop until the day my daughter accidentally smashed the dome of our cake stand. This dome was Perspex rather than glass because—the hubris!—I thought children couldn't break it. The shop it came from no longer stocked it. I looked at my girl's small regretful face and tried to suppress my annoyance. "It doesn't matter. We can just put cakes on the stand without a dome," I said, without much conviction, picturing stale sponges and brownies swarming with flies. 

Later that evening, I was putting the dishes away when I took a second glance at the clear plastic bowl of the salad spinner. Could it?—would it?—yes! Inverted, it was a perfect fit for the cake stand. All my disappointment at the breakage converted to satisfaction: I had turned a single-use gadget into a multi-functional wonder. Now I could sincerely reassure my daughter, who has a middle child's inclination to blame herself, that all was fine. Love would be putting it too strongly, but each time I place the salad-spinner bowl over a cake, I feel something resembling tenderness; even though it is just a clumsy piece of see-through plastic.

The kitchen furniture with which we surround ourselves feels like a projection of personality. This explains why, as in clothes shopping, it is so easy to fall for the wrong gadget in the flattering light of a cookware shop, where we somehow believe that a certain object will turn us into a different person. I had high hopes of the automatic flour-duster bought at E. Dehillerin, the most venerable kitchenware shop in Paris. I'd imagined it would help me, like an elegant French housewife, make beautiful quiches with buttery shortcrust pastry. But every time I clicked, instead of a light dusting of flour, it offloaded snowy heaps. 

Another dud was the good-looking Italian espresso machine that took hours of upkeep and only made nice coffee about one morning in three. It's a rule of thumb that any object you think will complete your life will probably make it more tiresome.  

When we were having our kitchen redone, I became fixated with having a chrome-plated citrus juicer that I saw in all the kitchen showrooms. It had a lever to squeeze the juice from halved oranges into a metal beaker below. If only we had this juicer, I became convinced, we would be the kind of glamorous household where people lounged in Ralph Lauren dressing-gowns, sipping fresh juice. I forgot that the children woke us most mornings at quarter to six, an hour when making juice is the last thing on anyone's mind. On the few occasions we managed to use the juicer, it extracted far less liquid per orange than our trusty manual citrus press. Eventually, we gave it to a jumble sale. 

There are other disused kitchen objects, however, that I just can't get rid of. I have a rotary mouli —also known as a passaverdure because it's what Italians use to purée vegetables. It never gets used—why would it, when I have a hand-held blender, which does the same job in half the time? But on opening the drawer and seeing this mouli, I am transported to my childhood kitchen table, helping my mother make carrot soup, ladling cooked carrots and broth into her mouli and laboriously turning the handle. Every so often, she would let me pick out and eat the stray pieces of carrot that remained behind. And so the mouli stubbornly remains, wasting precious storage space. As does a vast cake mould in the shape of a beehive, never used nor likely to be. It was given to me by a friend whom I haven't seen in a decade. To discard the cake tin would be an admission that the friendship is over. I'm not quite ready yet. Give me another decade. 

If we equipped our kitchens in brute utilitarian terms, nine-tenths of the gear could probably go. A good enough cook could get by with a hard surface and a sharp knife, a pan and some means of getting it hot. Oh, and a wooden spoon or two. But to see these objects purely in terms of need is missing the point. Our favourite pieces of kitchenware are household deities, like the penates guarding the larder in a Roman home. This is why we grasp the spoon so tightly as we stir the morning porridge. The best tools are those that make us feel safe. Meal by meal, we marshal them around us, shoring ourselves up against the unknown.

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