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Kitchen utensils, kitchen lore from long ago different from today

by John Straka Published: May 4, 2014 12:00 AM

My Aunt Mary was born in 1872. When I was a youngster, she and my Uncle Tony (her husband) lived within walking distance from where I lived. I was a frequent visitor at their home, where I enjoyed the fresh wood aroma of their brand new house. Uncle Tony was a carpenter. He not only built the house, but also collected firewood from a nearby wooded area and used it to heat his home all winter.

Aunt Mary did all her cooking on a wood burning kitchen stove. The flames and exhaust gases from the burning wood heated the stove's work surface as they passed underneath it and out the chimney. That surface had holes in it for adding more wood as needed. Those holes had to be closed when a fire was burning to keep exhaust gases out of the kitchen. Each hole had a lid. A lid lifter was used to remove and replace the hot lid. Aunt Mary probably also kept a poker handy to stir up the fire once in a while, plus a tool to scrape the wood ashes out of the firebox. Those were some of the many kitchen tools modern cooks no longer use.

Our kitchen table always had a special glass container full of teaspoons, a can of Gold Cross evaporated milk, and a sugar bowl on it. The can would have two small holes in it, one to pour the milk out of the can into a cup of fresh coffee, and the other to let air into the can to replace the milk. A special tool made those two small holes. I have one of those tools, but don't use it. Cans of liquid such as beer and pop now come with a pull tab that doesn't require a tool.

In fact, a lot of cans, no matter what is in them, can now be opened without tools. Not long ago, cans were opened by using a can opener. Those old-time openers are difficult to describe. You used them with an up-and-down motion that cut the top off the can, leaving a series of sharp jagged edges. A big improvement was the hand cranked opener and now we use an electric opener on some cans. It will probably be only a matter of time before that will also be obsolete.

I remember when the average home used a lot more glass bottles instead of the plastic ones of today. Bottles sealed with a cork needed a corkscrew to get the cork out. I've seen many different kinds of corkscrews, most of them designed for use on wine bottles. It was easier to use a bottle cap instead of a cork when making homemade root beer, ketchup, beer or wine. That required two tools, one to install the cap and another to remove it. I still have both. The capper can be folded for storage and is adjustable for different size bottles. Bottle cap removers came in many different styles and sizes. Some were given away with advertising printed on them.

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Bottle caps nailed to a board were used to scrape mud off shoes before entering a house. Such boards were often attached to the top step of a back porch. Kids attached bottle caps to decorate their Mayberry style caps, the kind Goober wore.

My Mom and my wife both did a lot of baking. They used a flour sifter, egg separator, eggbeater, dough board, rolling pin, and a variety of baking pans. My Mom's dough board was made so it would not move while she kneaded the dough. It had pieces of wood that held it in place against the table edge.

We have a really old rolling pin. One of the handles is broken off, but it works just like new. There is an old joke about a married couple participating in outdoor games at a picnic. He won the 50 yard footrace and she won the rolling pin throwing contest.

An egg separator isn't really necessary, if you know how to use the egg's shell or even your bare hands, to separate the yolk from the white. Separating eggs does not mean putting one here, and another one way over there.

There are many different kinds of eggbeaters. I remember the hand cranked kind but the wire whisk is better. An electric mixer does a good job especially if there are lots of eggs to be whipped like maybe when making an angel food cake.

If you want to make potato pancakes or potato dumplings you will need a grater and the best kind has crisscrossed wires instead of those sharp edges that grate fingers along with the potatoes. A very small version of the potato grater is the nutmeg grater. My Mom made a custard pie topped with grated nutmeg. It was my Dad's favorite. I doubt anyone under 30 would recognize a whole nutmeg or the grater. It's been so long since I've seen a whole nutmeg, maybe I wouldn't recognize one, either. A nutmeg is very hard and about the size of a pecan. Today, nutmeg comes already grated, in a can. It has a distinct flavor, a bit like cinnamon.

Modern cooks don't need all those tools. They use a freezer, a coffee maker, and a microwave oven. Everything is prepackaged, ready to serve. It tastes good, but what about all the preservatives?

Straka can be reached at wenceslas88plus@gmail.com.

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