THE RIDDLE OF THE GRIDDLE

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Food: why do we form relationships with some kitchen implements, and never hit it off with others? Bee Wilson measures out her life in pots and pans… 

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, 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. 

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