The oldest known evidence of a human who accumulated a giant pile of stuff dates to ancient Sumer, in the region known as the Fertile Crescent. This person amassed a collection of 1,100 clay seal impressions. I picture a guy in rough linen confronting his 900th clay seal, putting it near the door to be ferried to the goat-strewn trash heap, but then rethinking the move and placing it back on the shelf. This one, he thought, this one might come in handy.
Such collections of stockpiled goods are routinely uncovered by archaeologists, who have dubbed the ancients’ compilations “hoards.” The so-called Dowris Hoard, for example, was found in Ireland and dates to perhaps the ninth or seventh century BC. It included 26 bronze horns, because, obviously enough, 27 would have been tacky.
Roman hoards, too, are frequently uncovered throughout Europe: In 2010, a retiree checking out the British countryside with a metal detector unearthed 52,000 coins in a big jar from the third century AD. Why 52,000, not 49,000 coins? It’s hard to predict the exact number of coins you’ll need to bury in a jar to feel inner peace.
It makes one wonder: What will future archaeologists unearth from our own contemporary hoards? I predict that, among other things, they will find a great many fine collections of state-of-the-art kitchen implements, such as these:
• Battery-operated spaghetti-twirling forks. Manufactured by a company called Hog Wild, these $10 tools require only two AAA batteries and will save you the public embarrassment of turning a utensil.
• Fruit-peeling devices. Italian product designer Alessi has made one called the Apostrophe, which simplifies the inconvenience of peeling oranges. It looks like a small teardrop with a little hooked nose on a pointy end. Just insert the hook about a half-centimeter into an orange to begin peeling it. It’s $27 well spent.
• Automated condiment applicators. Isn’t shaking a saltshaker too terribly degrading? Perpetualkid.com sells $10 saltshakers, which come with a small pull-string that, when pulled, vibrates the shaker, obviating the need to move your hand like a common peasant.
• Egg accessories. Opening the eggs of chickens has baffled man since time immemorial. Thankfully, a company named Emson has come up with the EZCracker Handheld Egg Cracker, a $15 tool that allows access to these devious little bird-made packages. For another $15, you can get the Clever Scrambler in the Egg Scrambler, a little device that inserts a needle into the bottom of an egg and, at the push of the button, scrambles the egg inside the shell. Once scrambled, you can boil the eggs, so they’re both scrambled and boiled, and impress your friends with your culinary skills and your newfound brilliance in egg consumption. And, for only $3, you can buy a small plastic device that will take a previously hard-boiled egg and press it into the shape of a cube, thus eliminating being seen by your friends in the company of unsightly, common oval eggs.
• Of course, eggs are no good without toast, but let’s say you wanted to have your toast not in the shape of a slice of bread, but in strips? Does anyone know how to do this, short of renting a sawmill? The company Joie does: If you give them $6, they will give you a device shaped like a cookie cutter that will cut a piece of bread into strips. Problem solved.
• Agitating liquids can be a bit tricky, but the company Ardenté has thought this through. For $60, plus the price of four C-cell batteries, you may purchase their Gourmet Stirrer, a device that clips to the top of your own pot and acts like a small boat propeller in a puddle, rotating soups so that you may do other things, like, say, maintaining constant vigilance lest batteries run out, or worse, fall in.
• If the batteries do fall into your soup, you’ll clearly want a paper towel, ideally from the $80 seeing-eye iTouchless Towel-Matic Sensor Paper Towel Dispenser. With the wave of your hands, the paper towels will advance slightly, allowing you to pull them off. Imagine the joy and freedom you could experience not turning your own roll of paper towels! Or imagine the joy your cat could experience walking about the kitchen and getting the paper towels to advance every now and then.
I’m sorry — I give up. A seeing-eye paper-towel dispenser for your home? If I had to pinpoint the worst recurring moment of my modern life, it would be the 10 maddening seconds in which I’m waving my hands in front of a seeing-eye in a public bathroom and nothing happens. Then I start messing with the contraption with my wet hands, picking up all manner of new germs. Inevitably, I finally end up wiping my hands on my pants and muttering about the inglorious nature of humanity — millions of us floating in a thickly packed sea of battery-operated paper-towel dispensers, egg cubers, banana slicers, and ingenious, frustrating whoozigigs innumerable.
There is something beautiful in the idea of people ever perfecting, ever tinkering, ever thinking — thinking so hard they think up batteries, and then battery-operated spaghetti forks. But that doesn’t mean I want to live awash in battery-operated spaghetti forks.
In contemplating humanity’s eternal history of accumulated stuff, I think the most powerful lesson we can take away is this: To be fascinated by the possibilities of gadgets is human, but to appreciate the rewards of simplicity — particularly in the kitchen — is, by comparison, divine.
What can you do with a knife, some knife skills, a cutting board, a few bowls, a few spoons and forks, and a pot? Almost anything. And absolutely anything you can do with a battery-operated spaghetti fork.
10 Essential Kitchen Tools
A well-stocked kitchen doesn’t require a massive amount of gear. You don’t need an egg scrambler, a fondue pot or even an omelet pan. Here are the 10 simple essentials that will empower you to get most any meal on the table with a minimum of fuss.
• Knives. You can get by with just three good, steel-bladed knives: a solid chef’s knife, a smallish paring knife and a serrated bread knife (which will do double duty as a tomato slicer). A sharpening steel is also good to have for regular maintenance, but professional sharpenings (annually, at minimum) will restore your knives to greatness.
• Cutting boards. Wood boards are pretty and can double as serving trays (try bamboo or teak from a reliable resource); plastic ones can go in the dishwasher.
• Spatulas. A flexible spatula with a thin metal blade (or a thin nonstick blade, if you use nonstick pans) is invaluable for turning fish, eggs and so forth.
• Cast-iron pans. A well-seasoned (that is, well-used and oiled) 15-inch cast-iron skillet is the workhorse of the kitchen. You can use it for everything from frying a single egg or searing a steak to baking cornbread or braising a whole chicken. Get a lid for it to quadruple its uses.
• Pots. A small saucepan is great for cooking things like sauces, but a 3- or 4-quart saucepan will be the pot you use for simmering, steaming, reheating and more. Heavy-bottom, straight-sided pans are the most versatile.
• French oven. Sometimes called a Dutch oven or soup pot, a good 6-, 9- or 12-quart cast-iron pot is a kitchen necessity that can move from stovetop to oven. Use it to make chili, stew, soup and even bread. The best are the enamel-coated ones from Le Creuset — if you can afford one, their heat control is unparalleled, and they’ll last a lifetime.
• Spoons. Chefs use big spoons for sauces, for plating, for everything. If you want only one, get one with a flat-edge that will allow you to clear the bottom of a pot effectively.
• Rasps. Rasps have moved out of the woodshop and into the kitchen. Choose a tiny-holed rasp for grating fresh nutmeg, get a medium-holed version for zesting citrus, and an even larger-holed one for grating hard cheeses.
• Strainers. Some people like colanders, and some prefer strainers — which are you? A colander can also double as a decorative serving basket for fruit. You can use your strainer when cleaning veggies, but if you buy your greens unpackaged, then a salad spinner will come in handy, too.
• Vegetable Peelers. The classic U-shaped ones are preferred by chefs, though the most important thing in a vegetable peeler (as with most kitchen gear) is that you’re comfortable using it. Because, after all, the whole point of a well-appointed kitchen is to help you cook contentedly.