Mix: joy of cooking and gadgets

September 26, 2001|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Cavemen invented the first knife because they needed to eat.

It makes sense: survival instinct. But how do we explain the modern-day invention of a gelato paddle?

Need? No. As this planet's most intelligent life form, surely we can figure out how to get gelato out of a carton. Can't you use a spoon? Heck, just lick it straight from the tub.

The explanation is predictably simple in this consumer-driven country: perceived need. We think we need it. Add a shortage of time along with visions of easy gourmet grandeur, and it becomes downright imperative.

So a $12.50 cherry-and-olive pitter is born. A $6 rolling herb mincer becomes a must-have. A $16.50 barbecue tool can flip burgers, slice a steak and open a beer. The gelato paddle sells for $7.50.

We are hooked on gadgets. A respected judge raves about his pineapple corer. A woman who rarely cooks because her children are grown still can't stop buying new paring knives. Another woman continues to seek new devices, even

as her designated tool drawer is overflowing with things she never uses.

Yours truly is a prime example. I own little cheesecloth-type things with elastic to cover lemons when I am squeezing juice so there are no pits. I used one once.

I have a fork that digitally tests the temperature of meat (I can't figure how it works) and cedar planks to cook fish on (they catch fire).

But, like others, I don't stop buying gadgets because every once in a while I buy one that feels right in my hand. I am like a musician with a perfect instrument; the gadget assures me that no matter what I cook, it will be fabulous. Just call me Wolfgang. Puck, that is.

That's just what gadget-makers have in mind. The Pampered Chef, a $700 million business, sells everything imaginable, from bamboo tongs for removing toast from the toaster so you don't burn your fingers to a corn butterer to a knife that will cut vegetables in a design.

"We want to make sure that we put the right tools in the hands of the home cook to get that job done quickly and easily, but with dramatic results," says spokeswoman Julie Christopher.

Tools make a timid chef more comfortable in the kitchen, Christopher says.

"We're arming you with the tools to get the job done," she says, "to build up your confidence and know you can succeed."

Jerry Bowersox understands.

"It's just like with a child. When you get them new tennis shoes, they think they can run faster. You think if you buy these tools you will become a fantastic cook," says Bowersox, a 56-year-old Bowie resident. "You think, `If I have the right tools, maybe I will actually cook, and when I do, it will be wonderful.' "

Bowersox doesn't cook much any more since her children are now in their late 20s. But that doesn't stop her. She owns 40 knives, 25 of which are paring knives. She even has the Ginsu knives that were heavily marketed on television years ago.

"I am not proud. I will buy them anywhere," she says with a laugh.

She has four different ice-cream scoops, eight cutting boards, a knife designed just to cut cabbage, a porcelainlike cookie sheet that is guaranteed not to burn cookies, along with dozens of other items that fill her drawers.

She has a tea ball, although she says she never uses loose tea.

"It was cute. I had an urge. I bought it," she says.

Big sellers

Many of the tools are simple improvements on themselves. Pet peeves inspire new products.

Don't you hate it when vegetables slide off your cutting board and hit the stove when you try to scrape them into a pan? One of the new hot sellers at A Cook's Table, a cookware store in Federal Hill, is a $3.50 flexible cutting board that you can bend into a funnel.

Another big seller: flexible spatulas, which range in price from $4.25 to $6.75.

"You know how when you go to take a cookie off a cookie sheet, it kind of smushes up because it's warm?" asks manager Anne Darrin. "This prevents that. It scoops under [the cookie] so you can lift it without smushing it."

Also popular is a $22 butter crock that allows you to keep butter out of the refrigerator for about 30 days. "When you want a nice soft butter to spread on bread, or put it on your baked potato, you don't need to defrost it," Darrin says.

Much of the push in new cooking tools comes from people watching kitchen shows and wanting to be instant gourmets, she says. Her store sells a culinary torch for $34.95 so people can make creme brulee at home.

"People flock, `Oh, Emeril [Lagasse] used this. It makes life easier,' " Darrin says.

After seeing shows, people feel more adventurous, she says. It's as if gourmet cooking has been demystified and now everyone thinks he can make Italian pastry from scratch. One man recently came in and bought a cannoli mold and a deep-fat thermometer to make dessert for his wife.

"I said, `What makes you so industrious?' and he said, `I am tired of eating the same thing, and I saw this on one of the cooking shows,' " Darrin says.

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