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Did you know that you can tell where someone lives in the world by their potato peeler, why you should hide your garlic crusher if you value your culinary reputation and the unsolved mystery behind the bread board? Food writer, broadcaster and all-round self-confessed kitchen obsessive, Tim Hayward, sets about answering these anomalies and more in his fascinating new book, The Modern Kitchen, published by Smith & Baxter.
With characteristic enthusiasm, humour and insight, Tim examines 70 familiar kitchen tools, from the manual whisk to electrical tools, and why they say more about our domestic lives than we might realise. Describing the social and design history behind each item along with supporting iconic images (see the gallery above) this in an entertaining, informative and encyclopedic look at some familiar favourites for anyone who loves their kitchen and its host of utensils.
The book comes on the success of Tim's last fascinating nerd out on knives - see the Knife - The Culture, Craft and Cult of the Cook's Knife here.
We caught up with Tim to find out more about the place and impact of objects on our lives here's what he had to say:
For a selection of iconic images from the book, see the gallery above.
What inspired you to write this book?
Modern Kitchen is a microcosm of consumerism. Objects we all own, so completely common that we almost forget them, just tell the story of our society so well. Last year I saw a version of The Frankfurt Kitchen in a museum for the first time, as a design object and it struck me that not just the Modern Kitchen, but every object in it, is worthy of being treated as an exhibit. When you visit the British Museum, loads of the exhibits are Roman, Greek, Egyptian or Sumerian kitchen objects… the everyday stuff from which we extrapolate ancient lives. I’m just starting early on the Spiralizer.
Which tool do you think revolutionised the home kitchen the most?
It’s a boring answer but it’s the stove. The really remarkable thing that comes up in research is that, once the Industrial Revolution begins and people move to Cities in large numbers, actually cooking food in the home becomes rare. Most food for working families comes from outside suppliers or street traders - effectively, Victorian ‘ready meals’ and ‘takeaways’. Having your own oven is a late and revolutionary development.
Did you come across any kitchen tools which you think are inherently useless?
Strangely, I think the ‘food processor’ has ‘become’ useless. It was initially sold to domestic users with loads of accessories that promised to tackle every prep task... but in the end almost all the tasks were better done with simpler kit. There are lots of kitchen tools that are just a bit rubbish, but a box of peeler/grater/slicer/pulper/juicer/chipper/sausage-stuffer attachments is a ubiquitous reproach to all foodies.
Name three indispensable kitchen items in your home kitchen and why?
Cast Iron Skillet: Still the best and most versatile cooking vessel of all. Not as tough to maintain as most people think and a daily pleasure to work with.
A brilliant knife: Does everything a food processor does and more.
My Nan’s Whisk: An ancient, ‘spring’ whisk, going a little rusty and with a replacement handle I made after the original broke when someone put it in the dishwasher. No sauce has split, no mayonnaise has ever failed with Nan’s whisk and no-one except me is allowed to touch it now.
How do kitchen tools distinguish the average British kitchen from its European counterparts?
I think people imagine that the Brits have more gadgets and cook less than the Italians or French, but, in my experience, that’s not really true. I find that keener cooks tend to spend a little more on their kit and edit it down with a little more ferocity over time - and that everyone has at least a couple of truly random old bits of rubbish that they can’t bear to get rid of.
Is there a relationship between cost and quality when it comes to purchasing tools?
The key thing, as with any tool, is utility - a combination of functionality and fit to the user. Research any tool before buying it, visit it in the shop, hold it in your hand, test how it feels… and if it feels right, pay any price for it.
Can you judge the quality of a cook by the inside of their kitchen cupboards?
Some of the best cooks I’ve encountered have had some of the most primitive kit - but their love of it always shows. I remember watching some of the best pasta I’ve ever eaten being prepared by a Tuscan woman with a crappy little IKEA table knife with its handle held on with insulating tape. You could never have guessed she was a genius from looking at the knife out of context. You could never doubt for a second that she wasn't once you’d seen her use it.
Do you think an unskilled cook can paper over the cracks with the right tools?
In a word, no. Good cooking is about love, not equipment. Someone who loves cooking will find a way, will improvise the kit, to make food beautiful. Someone who doesn’t care just broadcasts the fact by spending money on gadgets. The whole point of the book is how the objects ‘reflect’ that love of cooking and thus the lives and personalities of the people who use them.
What do you think the evolution of this book would look like in another 100 years?
I sincerely hope this book would be exactly the same in 100 years, because people will still love the experience of cooking, domestically, with hand tools. The brands will change, the shapes might refine but I’d love it to be very similar.
What are your thoughts on the future kitchen eg robotics, 3D printers, Smart cooking… Are they adding to the arsenal of tools available to the home cook or taking away?
Most of these advances will appear in commercial kitchens where they will be very welcome. Some will be sold to us domestically, in the name of ‘convenience’… but the real point of the home kitchen is the joy of preparing and eating food for our loved ones. Though technological advances might make a robot built microwave lasagne better, they run entirely counter to the physical and emotional pleasure the domestic user takes in the Modern Kitchen.