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Everything but the kitchen sink 🍳👩🍳🥄
Why our favourite utensils are at the heart of our kitchens.
Like our favourite outfit, our most oft-used cooking utensils bring out the best in us. In this week’s issue, Sian talks about how they become a part of the fabric of our lives, and bring us comfort, joy and bravery in the kitchen.
I want to have a rummage around your kitchen, if you’ll let me. Which spatula is your favourite? Which is your go-to saucepan? How does your best mixing bowl feel when you’re beating egg whites into stiff peaks? When we talk about good food, we wax lyrical about buying the best ingredients and we make our favourite recipes the star of the show. We don’t often shout about the backbone of our own kitchens: the equipment. A much-loved spatula or pot is more than a means to an end, it’s key to the whole process. That’s why when you’ve got a pile of teaspoons to choose from and a dozen dangling saucepans, you still reach for the same one each time.
My favourite kitchenware is a deep saucepan that can feed a dozen without question. It cost me less than a tenner in a southeast London Asda nearly two decades ago. You don’t own much in the way of kitchenware when you’re a young adult, it’s cobbled together from university and flat shares, where you realise you own five sieves between you but no-one has a potato masher. My saucepan wasn’t passed down to me, it isn’t valuable. But of course, it is. It’s moved house with me no less than 11 times and has cooked me through celebrations, arguments, countless dinners, my first ever freelance job, my first book deal, grief, and more than one heartbreak.
I think I know who I am when I cook food in that pan. I am not a speedy cook, however hard I try to make friends with my wok. I am easily distracted and I like things to simmer while I read books and get caught up in writing. So when I taught myself to cook, this pan was where I started – with curries, stews, chillies and ragù – a huge pot of food bubbling away was soothing. It’s how I learnt to taste as I went along, to adjust, to trust in the process. There’s no doubt that I like the feeling of control when I cook, and this is why I turn to my favourite pan so often. Even when I’m making it up as I go along, I feel at ease.
The comfort isn’t just in the final plate of food, there’s a solace that comes in the cooking itself – the methodical chop-chop-chopping, meditative stirring, browning, melting, smooshing. Feeling it all come together. Perhaps this is why some people don’t feel hungry after they’ve cooked a delicious meal, it’s already filled them up in a different way.
The kitchen is often where we connect with the people we love, and in her essay collection Home Cooking, food writer Laurie Colwin talks about the long thread of generations involved in cooking:
“No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, and the wisdom of cookbook writers.”
In a similar way, I think many people feel an attachment to their kitchenware, especially those bits that are passed down through generations. When I asked Laura about her favourite cooking equipment, she told me about an abundance of jars and casserole dishes that she has a connection with. She also has a favourite butter knife. And a teaspoon that was erm… “liberated” from a British Airways flight in the 1980s.
“I have so many favourite pots and precious utensils, most of which I’ve inherited from my mum’s house. Those wonky pan handles are my Proustian madeleines, and every dent brings back fond memories of helping out with the cooking in my childhood kitchen. I can taste my mother’s shepherd’s pie when I use our old potato masher; the creak of the orange Mouli grater reminds me of our extremely enthusiastic cheesy baked potato phase in the 90s. There’s no sadness in my kitchen cupboards. Every night it feels like she’s there, stirring and laughing by my side, and I love that.”
I also asked pals on Twitter for stories of their culinary hand-me-downs, and the response covered everything but the kitchen sink.
Kavey’s response in particular sparked something in me – that curve could only be made by the hand of one person, much like a well-used fountain pen. We get to know the objects we use regularly. Their weight, shape and texture. Over years, we build a relationship with them. The trust we place in our own bodies continues through to our tools. This is discussed at length in topics of art and creativity – pens, paintbrushes, potters wheels – yet the same is rarely acknowledged in the kitchen.
As Ruby Tandoh wrote for Heated, Your Hands Are Your Greatest Kitchen Utensil. Our kitchen tools, I think, become an extension of our hands. Cooking is physical, but it cannot always be done by hand alone. We still need a knife to chop, a masher to mash, a pestle to grind. Is there anything that brightens a day quicker than the zesting of a lemon?
Despite the love of KitchenAids and food processors, it can be the most basic of implements that have the most impact on our day-to-day lives. In Consider The Fork, food writer and historian Bee Wilson extols the virtues of the humble wooden spoon:
“The wooden spoon is a quiet ensemble player in so many meals that we take it for granted. We do not give it credit for the eggs it has scrambled, the chocolate it has helped to melt, the onions it has saved from catching with a quick twirl.”
Kitchens mean different things to different people. For some cooking is arduous, others little more than a necessary task. It took most of my twenties for it to become a place for me to experiment and find joy. When energy prices are soaring, playing and experimenting is becoming less of a priority for many. It’s the quick twirl of a spoon that reassures us. Those familiar pieces in our kitchens comfort us and bolster us when we need it. Whether we’re a bit nervous about trying something new, or we’re piecing ourselves back together, the utensils and pans that we repeatedly turn to when we cook give us a little bit of bravery. They can make us feel a little less alone and they can buoy our spirits. Every day, they shape our lives.