I knew what it was as soon as I saw it. It was unmistakable. The one and only. Its price far above rubies. And I knew it was irreplaceable. We were standing in Friend’s kitchen making a pot of tea, and my eyes fell on this strange looking knife, with a black bone handle and a short pointed blade that looked as though it had been buried for aeons.
“Is that your special knife? “ I asked. Her soft, be-ringed hand covered it protectively as it lay on the bench. “Yes”, she replied, her voice throbbing with all the weight of the years of devotion. “I’ve had it since it came out of the house when my first mother- in- law died over fifty years ago. I hide it from Jim so he can’t use it or lose it. I don’t know how old it is, I think the blade may have broken in half, which is why it’s so short. But I use it for everything.”
“You don’t have to explain,” I laughed, “I recognised it straight away. My father had a knife like that.”
He and my stepmother married just after the war when there was nothing to buy in the shops, and couples starting on their married life subsisted on the gifts of family and friends. This knife came from my stepmother’s father. He didn’t value it obviously. But nothing would have wrested it from my father’s hands, the talented cook in the family.
It was just your ordinary bone handled, long bladed knife. Not an actual carving knife, but the sort that was used for carving fowl in the days when people had a different utensil for everything. This meant that the blade was quite slim. But it was known as The Carving Knife.
For all the years of their married life, my father and stepmother used it for everything – peeling vegetables, carving the Sunday joint, cutting the Christmas cake, filleting a sole – they had no truck with dinky little vegetable peelers and fancy little kitchen knives. This was their treasure, versatile and indispensable. As the years went by the blade became more and more curved and thin from sharpening and from constant use, but it never buckled under the pressure.
If it went missing the whole house was in uproar and panic. Frantic searches ensued until the precious object had been found, and peace returned to the kitchen and peace of mind to the drawing room. We children were dispatched to all corners and cupboards in the kitchen- always feeling rather hopeless. I can still see my handsome, moustachioed father bent over the dustbin outside on a dark winter’s night, unwrapping the bundles of rubbish wrapped up in newspaper the way we did back then. He found it too, that time. It was not only well used, but well travelled, accompanying us to and from army quarters, from country to country and into retirement.
Now that they are both dead, and I was far away each time, first in Hong Kong, and then here in New Zealand, I’ve often wondered what became of their most precious possession, whether anyone else remembered and treasured it, or was this cherished hard-working, faithful kitchen help-meet just jettisoned?
My husband will only use the same mug for all his drinks. It’s a blue willow pattern mug, which the children bought for me for Christmas 1974, and has lasted until now. It actually has one chip, but it doesn’t put him off. He will also only use two stainless steel spoons from the kitchen drawer for his breakfast muesli, out of all the spoons in the house. He likes their shape. They are amongst the oldest, ugliest and cheapest in the house. They came out of the top of a large packet of Tide in 1965. Tide was a washing powder we used in the sixties. The spoons were part of a set of knives and forks as well, which were buried in the soap powder in each box – which of course, I used in copious quantities for all those nappies.
And my son, when he was four and five, on being asked what he wanted to eat would always reply: “Toast with melted butter and the crusts cut off and my drink in a rose cup”. Like me he is still addicted to using beautiful things – but not, maybe, as addicted as me…
In her funny and charming little book ‘The Holy Man’, Susan Trott has a chapter called “Fussiness”. The Holy Man noticed that one of his disciples, Henri, always sat in the same place for meals, and always used the same blue plate, and he also noticed that the sleeves of Henri’s robe were always folded back in exactly the same way with three folds.
So the next day the Holy Man sat in Henri’s place. When Henri asked him about this he just pulled down the sleeves of Henri’s robe. The next morning as Henri entered the kitchen, the Holy Man dropped the blue plate, and then swept up the shattered pieces. Later, Henri nabbed the Holy Man – who was called Joe, actually, and said: ‘Okay, you think I’m being fussy,’ but Henri still couldn’t see the problem. In their discussion, Joe pointed out that attachment means suffering, and he also suggested that these attachments meant that Henri was trying to control his environment, which leads to rigidity of thinking.
I often think about this chapter, being an extremely fussy person myself, and try to train myself to let go without suffering when I chip a plate or break a favourite mug. I try to see it as an opportunity to find something new, just as pretty – which I’m not sure is what Buddha or the Holy Man had in mind!
And as for the kitchen knives – yes, I have one too. No it is not a fetish, but a right hand man. Over a life-time several of these precious objects have broken or disappeared, but I feel my present general duties, all purpose kitchen knife will last the distance. I found it in the garage when we moved here, seven years ago. It’s the most comfortable of all my knives to hold. The curve of the blade is perfect for everything I want to do, it gets sharper than any of the others, and if it goes missing, there‘s hell to pay. But my better half is oblivious to all this, and uses it as if it were any old knife. So I end up like my father, searching frantically in rubbish bags, over-loaded dishwasher and kitchen drawers for my indispensable partner in the kitchen. Yes, I am shamelessly attached !
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
With a slow-cooked casserole the other day, I decided to skip the mashed potatoes which it cried out for, and do pureed kumara/sweet potato instead. Peeled, and boiled until soft, I tipped them into my new toy, the stick whizzer. First I put a big knob of butter and a good dollop of cream, then the kumara, salt and black pepper and nutmeg to taste. A quick whizz, and there was this melting, delectable orange puree.
Inspired by this, I decided not to mash the carrots and parsnip together, but to puree them too. This meant cooking the carrots for longer than the soft parsnip. But whizzed again with the butter and cream, they were heavenly too. They soaked up the beautiful sauce of the casserole which had been cooked in spices and pea – nut butter for twelve hours at fifty degrees. Recipe next time!
Food for Thought
In the morning the ignorant man considers what he will do, while the intelligent man considers what Allah will do with him.
Ibn Ata’illah-Sakandari Sufi saint, born in Alexandria circa 1240, died in Cairo 1309, where his tomb can still be visited.