Bookshelf Box grater

Tool Time

What do our kitchen tools say about us?


In this excerpt from Kitchen Things: An Album of Vintage Utensils and Farm-Kitchen Recipes, Richard Snodgrass explores the stories our kitchen tools tell through photography and text. The book is available now from Skyhorse Publishing in stores and on Amazon.

Box Grater

The truth is we can learn from things. They have experiences, stories to tell. The photographer Oliver Gagliani used to say a thing has a life of its own, a life-cycle just like that of a person: it has a birth, a youth when it’s new and fresh and untried; then it matures to adulthood, the height of its powers and use; finally it decays and becomes broken and old.

Then there’s this guy, who I nickname The Jolly Grater. (When I ask him if I may take his image, he appears to give me a grin.) The reference books and Wikipedia tell me that graters were invented by Francois Boullier in the 1540s so hard cheeses could still be used. They also say that this basic design dates back two hundred years, and who am I to argue? The advantage of this design is that it gives you as many as four graters in one; one side of this particular fellow is devoted to openings for slicing vegetables, which is why he’s smiling. The disadvantages of the design are well known to anyone who has tried to clean the inside of one, where the shredding can involve fingertips and dishcloths.

The question remains, at least in my mind, why is this guy smiling? Or why do we perceive it to smile? I’m aware that one of the reasons I started to make images of these utensils — as can be said of all photography — is to see how they look as photographs. Because photography changes things; the subject is no longer the thing-in-itself, it becomes a representation of the thing. What’s more, as the subject of a photograph, it becomes part of a new thing-in-itself, an image on a piece of paper or on a screen — however the photograph is displayed. The difference between art and artifact, in a way, if art is the intention. A memory of a memory as it were. Yet this jolly fellow adds a whole new element; in addition to being an image to capture the spirit of those who used it, it takes on a new or added identity as a metaphor for something else. Something other. Graters don’t smile, we know that. And yet here he is, smiling. Quantum mechanics shows us that observing a phenomenon changes the phenomenon. Maybe photographing a thing not only changes the thing — it changes us.

All-Purpose Opener

All-purpose opener

Metaphor is the essence of art (with a capital “A”). Art has to do with levels of meaning, and metaphor is the express elevator to take us to those levels or layers of meaning. Without levels of meaning, a work is in the realm of craft, or reportage, or representation or the like — all good things, of course. Qualities that can be appreciated and enjoyed for their own sake. But Art gives something more. Art, depending upon its intention and skill and efficacy, can include all these qualities, and then add emotional content, insights, wisdom as well. And metaphor is the means through which we reach those depths. Or heights.

Take this all-purpose opener. The photograph is, if I do say so myself, a pretty good representation of the thing-itself. If you were sent in search of an all-purpose opener, you could use this image to tell you what such an animal looks like. And I think the image gives a sense that this guy has a history, a story to tell, he’s done its share of work in his day, passed through his share of working hands. A survivor from the age of neighborhood Five & Dimes and local hardware stores.

And yet, and yet…

In the process of becoming the image of a photograph — part of a new thing-itself — it has taken on added dimensions. Looked at in a certain way, this fellow is rather scary. A made-up monster from a Grade-B sci-fi thriller from the 1950s perhaps. Or a nightmare figure from a Hieronymus Bosch view of the Underworld. The horrific, gaping mouth of a Goya painting, or a study of the human condition by Francis Bacon. Vertical Picasso-esque eyes. Key-adorned headdress or helmet or tablita. Corkscrew penis. Small pointy tail. Fear and associations being in the eye of the beholder, the same as beauty. The point being that now this utensil can be seen as something else, something more than a tool for opening cans and bottles. And yet, it’s that, too. Something to ponder over. Conjure with.

Nutmeg Grater

Nutmeg grater

To judge by the number of antique nutmeg graters in my reference books — there are six pages worth in the fifth edition of 300 Years of Kitchen Collectibles by Linda Campbell Franklin — or the number I see laid out on the tables of flea markets and antique fairs, you’d think that Americans come from generations of nutmeg-grating devotees. But as Franklin notes in one entry, by 1890 there was apparently only one manufacturer of nutmeg graters. She goes on to say, “I suppose by that time, powdered nutmeg in tins had pretty much obviated the need for graters.”

A curious thing happened as technology worked its way into every aspect of our everyday lives and processed food became more prevalent: people started to prefer the prepared and packaged food to fresh. And it wasn’t all just for the convenience. For Americans at least, it became a mark of being modern and up-to-date — and more than that, too: it became an indication of affluence and success — to open a can of peas or tomatoes or asparagus rather than deal with vegetables right from the ground.

I grew up suspicious of anything that didn’t come from the sealed goodness of a package.

In the Sixties when hippies advocated “back to nature,” few people appeared to listen. But eventually the message — at least in regard to food — seeped through the layers of American tastes and mores. Of course, the general hedonism of the Eighties and Nineties — with its growth industry of TV cooking shows — certainly didn’t hurt. Whatever… the fact is that fresh simply tastes better. Surprise!

Today it’s become fashionable to tout such qualities as Farm-Fresh and Locally Grown, and our diets and taste buds are all better off for it. I’ve even been known — Gasp! — to frequent farmers’ markets. Roadside vegetable stands. Community gardens. What is the world coming to?

Cherry Pitter

Cherry pitter

Seeing is believing, or so goes the adage. Well, when it comes to photographs, Photoshop pretty much gives that the lie. But the adage was in trouble before software made it possible to alter a photograph’s take on reality. For instance, just because the fellow in this image looks rather insect-like, or possibly reptilian, doesn’t make it so. Or does it?

In the tremulous world of the thing-in-itself, this is actually a cherry pitter — or stoner (no jokes, please). It’s a clever device for removing the pits (or stones) from the fruit on a large scale, such as preparing freshlypicked cherries from a local orchard or backyard tree for canning. We had such a tree in the corner of our backyard and I have fond memories of the day each summer when we picked the cherries — my father and sisters and I up on ladders among the branches; my mother in the kitchen tending the bubbling pots and the battalion of waiting Mason jars. Except I never liked the dark-colored mass that later glopped out of the jars. I much preferred the artificial cherry flavoring of Kool-Aid or soda, a disappointment, no doubt, to my mother when she made pies. The dusty jars sat on basement shelves for more than twenty years, everyone afraid at that point to go near them.

Here the cherry pitter appears silvery but in fact it is cast iron, black as coal, its sheen a reflection of the lights. What to believe? The image is a reminder that, like a cherry, a photograph has at its core something that’s hard to sink your teeth into. Namely, that a photograph isn’t a window to the thing-in-itself. A photograph is its own thing-in-itself, with visions that can be very different than the thing portrayed. A photograph opens up a view into the emotions and associations of the viewer — a view in rather than a view out. If anything, it’s more a mirror than a window. Though that may be unpleasant to accept if you can imagine the subject of this image crawling out from some dark corner. Headed your way.

Climax Meat Grinder

Climax meat grinder

A meat grinder named Climax. Cute. It’s easy to imagine some early twentieth-century marketing managers having fun with that one — nudge, nudge; wink, wink. Okay, moving on… When I was a child, this utensil was one of my first lessons in causality, the consequences of cause and effect. You cram the chunks of meat in here; you turn the crank; and the meat comes out there in a different form. In time, I came to understand the principle involved: The screw inside turned by the crank; the washer with the holes through which the meat was forced; the wing nut (like a small leaden angel) holding it all together. It wasn’t scary exactly, but it certainly was something to consider. The seductive crank, just asking to be turned; the relentless whorls of the screw driving the meat to its transformation. Stick a finger in there and you’d learn the pain of causality fast.

Consequential thinking — the ability to foresee and grasp the consequences of one’s actions — is not in everyone’s makeup. For instance, my father had it, at least in some areas. An accountant with a cause and effect kind of mind, he could play several chess opponents at once — blindfolded; unfortunately, he tended to do the same with people. My mother, on the other hand, was more of an in-the-moment kind of gal. In regard to ground beef — this started with a meat grinder, remember — she was okay when she made her own, but the convenience products after World War II seemed to stymie her. When she bought ground beef at the A&P, she often let it sit in the grocery bags for a day or so before putting it in the freezer. Then when it came time to cook it, she plopped it frozen into a skillet of water and boiled it down to greasy gray mass. My brother saw it as malicious, but I think it more complicated than that. Regardless, such cooking explained why I grew up emptying a bottle of Heinz Ketchup every day.

You cram in the meat of reality here; you turn the crank of experience, geared to the screw of time; and out come memories there, ready to be patty-caked into sensibilities and dispositions. Of course, after all that, everything you think you know is anti-climactic.

Glass Butter Churn

Glass butter churn

“Benjamin Franklin’s Bell Jar.”


“That’s what this reminds me of. Didn’t Franklin use a bell jar to capture lightning?”

“It’s a butter churn. I’d think you’d know that.”

“How would I know a butter churn from Ben Franklin’s Bell Jar?”

“You’re a farm girl.”

“Well, first of all, I’m not really a farm girl. My parents lived next door to my grandparents, my mom’s parents, who had a farm—and the Shantee Restaurant. It wasn’t my parents’ farm.”

“No, but you used to be around it every day. You grew up around it.”

“True. But I have to tell you I never really liked it all that much. I mean it was nice enough, but the cows, they scared me. And there were bugs… really big bugs.” Marty shudders.

“So, I’m guessing you don’t have any really good making-butter stories.”

“None at all. Grandpap never made butter, as far as I know. And after he died it wasn’t even a dairy farm anymore. My Aunt Ruth grew corn and wheat. I’m not even sure how butter is made.”

“When you stir cream, the membranes that surround the milk fat dissipate and clumps form called butter grains. All this stirring stirs up air bubbles, and the butter grains attract other butter grains that clump together into fat globules, and eventually you get buttermilk. If you keep stirring long enough, the fat globules solidify and you drain off the buttermilk and you get butter. Incidentally, it’s pretty sad when the guy born and raised in a steel town knows more about butter-making than the ersatz farm girl.”


“There’s nothing wrong with that. It means — ”

“I know what it means,” Marty says, measured. And I wonder what I’ve stirred up.


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