By Tammera J Karr PhD
What are your must-have gizmos, gadget, tool, or appliance in your home or RV kitchen?
This question had come before me frequently of late and got me thinking about all the tools we have available today, designed for one form or another of food preparation. It is quite overwhelming when you do a small search on Amazon, Overstock, or Wayfair for Kitchen tools and appliances. As a food historian, I have seen kitchen tools from colonial days to the present, some have lasted over the centuries, and others came and went. The one tool every kitchen has at least one of is a knife. History and archaeology can show us blades of every shape and material dating from man’s earliest forays into tool making.
When reading about pioneers coming west and what individuals started with, then left along the trail; the list is long from furniture to wood cook stoves, books to rugs, copper pots, and pans to bone china. But the knife always seemed to make the list of must-haves. When families packed up their belongings and moved during the dust bowl, the kitchen knife was secured in the load once again. So what about today – does the humble knife still have relevance with food processors, electric carving blades, mincers, blenders, and more?
Ohh, Ya, our fascination with knives is still very real. Each time I open one of my social media pages, an ad for Damascus steel kitchen knives with wood, ceramic, bone, and composite handles of every size and color greets me. I feel like a magpie drawn to shiny – wanting this one and that.
Unlike the pioneers or my grandmother, I have to consider the requirements of another kitchen appliance that rules supreme – the dishwasher. My grandmother never had to weigh the acquisition of her mixing bowls, hand tools, dishes, and knives against Dishwasher Safe. Ok, many folks don’t have dishwashers, but what about microwave ovens?
The microwave oven made it big in the mid-1980s when the once expensive countertop high-tech oven became affordable to the masses in North America. A whole new approach to cooking took the states by storm. Candy, bacon, rice, and potatoes in minutes, and soon freezers were filled with not the functional aluminum oven TV dinner but the snazzy plastic dish quick meal. I admit that this is one electric appliance short-lived in my kitchen and RV. After three years of not even using the microwave’s timer function in our RV, we removed it and turned the space into convenient storage for those kitchen tools used almost daily. I enjoy cooking and find it as fast as ready-made meals. The motions involved with preparing a meal are timeless and allow one to slow down and take stock in the day’s events while flavoring the food with intention and care. On the practical side, I’ll admit at home and in the RV counter space to use those nifty knives on will always win out over another electrical gadget.
Did you grow up with Pyrex? Pretty much every wedding from the 1940s to the present has had at least one set of Pyrex mixing bowls if festive or retro colors. Countless batches of popcorn, salads, mashed potatoes, and pasta have been offered up to family members in Pyrex over the decades, and they were the first freezer to oven to tableware of the modern age. There are downsides to grandmothers stoneware and Pyrex. The heavy metal content and exposure from ceramics pre-2015 are serious considerations, especially if children eat from these dishes. But will this champion of the kitchen be replaced with Silicone? Maybe, but there is a lot we don’t know about silicone cookware – remember how Teflon took over the kitchen in the 1970s and 80s? Today we know there are health dangers from cooking and using Teflon, so much so that the US government banned its use. Ok, they may have excluded it more for the threat to the ozone than your health, but we will take this win any way we can get it.
There are still more appliances filling the cupboards; electric frying pans, instant pots, hand benders, ice cream makers, popcorn poppers, and more. When it comes down to it, just how many of these appliances do we really need, or even use more than once a year? If we were loading a wagon to head west today, how many of these would be left behind? There is something to be said for simplicity. When we use the knife, rolling pin (reminiscent of the mortar and pestle), and spoon, we are using tools that have passed the test of time. The physical motions we do of slicing, chopping, ladling, pouring, rolling, and pressing are little changed from that of the pioneers or ancient peoples who first settled our world. When explorers of old went forth, simplicity ruled due to practical needs. Today millions of people in other parts of the world still use rudimentary kitchen tools to prepare their daily meals; these tools may have been passed down through generations or fabricated from available materials. Why they are still in demand comes down to serviceable, dependable, and portable.
Consider the appliance invasion that may have been going on in your kitchen. Before buying the newest gizmo, pause and ponder how much space it takes up, and if its value is real or just because everyone else has one. Keep those tools that increase the enjoyment of cooking, that connect you to family and friends – the rest pass them by in favor of less stuff to weigh you down.
To read more on the modernization of the kitchen by Tammera Karr
by Tammera J. Karr
The first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt as a substitute for ivory. By treating cellulose, derived from cotton fiber, with camphor (both naturally occurring substances), Hyatt discovered a plastic that could be crafted into a variety of shapes and made to imitate natural materials like tortoiseshell, horn, linen, and ivory.
In 1907 Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic, meaning it contained no molecules found in nature. Baekeland had been searching for a synthetic substitute for shellac, a natural electrical insulator, to meet the needs of the rapidly electrifying United States.
Plastics Come of Age
World War II necessitated a significant expansion of the plastics industry. Almost exclusively made from fossil fuels, the market was ripe for the development of (1935) rayon, nylon as synthetic silk, used during the war for parachutes, ropes, body armor, helmet liners, and more. Plexiglas provided an alternative to glass for aircraft windows. During World War II, plastic production in the United States increased by 300%.
It wasn’t long till plastic was everywhere and thousands of products were made of plastics. But by the mid-1960s American perceptions as plastics were no longer seen as unambiguously positive. Plastic debris in the oceans was first observed in the 1960s, and Americans were becoming increasingly aware of environmental problems.
Unlike natural fibers, fur, paper, and metal, plastics last in the environment forever, breaking down into micro-plastic beads that are ingested by birds, fish and animals. Current research is finding plastic particles incorporated into the flesh of marine life and land animals. The modern reality is our lives are heavily invested in plastics, computers, cell phones, carpeting, clothing, cars, planes, phone, electrical, water…… everything we need or do has plastic involved.
Unintended consequences to our health.
As I scanned through research articles on phthalates, the common form of plastics found in animals and humans. It became clear that the government and industry websites and reports were slanted to protect industry versus human health. Over and over I saw statements like “more research needs to be done, effects are unknown at this time, small studies” …. This all reads just like the cover-up reports before the effects of agent orange on veteran, and civilian health could no longer be denied.
Red flags started waving, especially after seeing studies recently released on phthalates linked to motor skill deficiencies. This study published in February 2019 and updated again in January 2020, says.
“The findings suggest that maternal exposure to phthalates in late pregnancy could have long-lasting adverse effects on motor function in children in later childhood, particularly in girls. There was also evidence that childhood exposure to phthalates may have more harmful effects on motor function in boys.
“Almost one-third of the children in our study had below or well-below average motor skills,” says senior author Pam Factor-Litvak, Ph.D., professor of Epidemiology at the Columbia Mailman School.”
Researchers from the Department of Genetic Medicine and Development at UNIGE Faculty of Medicine published their findings in 2019 on phthalates and gene expression. This research group out of Switzerland wrote the following statement:
“Phthalates, one of the most common endocrine disruptors, are commonly used by industry in many plastic products — toys, clothing, baby bottles or even medical equipment — as well as in cosmetics. Guidelines are beginning to be imposed to limit their use; their toxic effect on the endocrine system is worrying.
Indeed, the exposure of male fetuses to phthalates can have devastating consequences for the fertility of future individuals by modifying the regulatory elements of the expression of genes responsible for spermatogenesis. …… phthalate susceptibility depends largely on the genetic heritage of each individual. These results, to be discovered in PLOS One magazine, raise the question of individual vulnerability as well as that of the possible transmission to future generations of epigenetic changes that should normally be erased during fetal development”.
Other studies from 2015 and 2017 said:
“Early childhood exposures to specific phthalates were associated with depressed thyroid function in girls at age 3, …. Phthalates, a class of chemicals thought to disrupt the endocrine system, are widely used in consumer products from plastic toys to household building materials to shampoos”.
“Early exposure in the human womb to phthalates disrupts the masculinization of male genitals, according to a study presented at the Endocrine Society’s 97th annual meeting in San Diego”.
Ok, I think I have made my point here about the unintended consequences of plastics to our environment and human health.
To real food, and the products from nature that make life sustainable.