Inspector, Gadget

The tongs were heavy burnished metal, artfully contoured, and studded with spikes. They looked like a BDSM testicle-holder or a speculum for aliens, and they came from the very back of a drawer in the kitchen of the church I went to as a kid. My mother offered them to me, along with a box of other oddities from the same drawer; she’d been organizing the church kitchen and was jettisoning anything that clearly hadn’t been used in years. (Mom: “Do you want six bags of stale brown rice? It expired in 2012.” Me: “No, thanks.”)

But I pounced upon the baffling tongs, which I guessed were once-common serving pieces of the 1950s or ‘60s. For a chafing dish full of beets or new potatoes, perhaps? My Facebook friends speedily supplied an answer, but it was a disappointing one: tomato-slicing tongs. The slits are guides for a knife. It bears mentioning that this contraption has a strong spring, and is wont to pop open. Should your life not present enough challenges, do seek out tomato-slicing tongs, which will escalate the mundane task of making neat and even tomato cross-cuts into an epic, maddening grapple.

Welcome to my anti-gadget war. For years, I worked in a cookware store. We carried iconic brands: All-Clad, Le Creuset, Vitamix. Their merchandise set shoppers back hundreds of dollars. And, in terms of usefulness and durability, it was often worth it. But our store was equally known for its bountiful inventory of inexpensive doodads, the kind of gizmos that clutter drawers in homes (and church kitchens) across America. Sure, selling one fully-automated Jura-Capresso Z9 coffee center (retail cost: $3,599) would make the store’s sales goal for the day, but all those pineapple corers and serrated peelers were our bread and butter.

To customers, I would detail the subtleties of onion goggles and silicone egg-poaching pods. Privately, I divided those items into two categories.

1.      Tools, which are useful.

2.      Gadgets, which are pointless.

An offset spatula is a tool. An avocado scoop is a gadget. Nothing else does what an offset spatula does—I love mine, and use it for both cake decorating and shimmying roasted veggies off of sheet pans—but the best item for scooping out an avocado is one you already own: a metal spoon.

Our consumer-driven culture delivers us products created to solve non-existent problems. Garlic peelers, melon wedgers, pie dividers, olive pitters. Once again, you currently have one amazing tool that can do all of these things. It’s called a knife. Keep it sharp and it’ll even slice tomatoes for you, too.

The notion that highly breakable plastic crap is a better alternative than experience and knowledge is a highly American one. It’s whimsical and aspirational on one hand, a result of the Ron Popeil mindset of innovation and cunning salesmanship. Buy this scary metal hair pick/onion holder and never be plagued by coming into contact with raw food again! Here’s a stainless-steel pod to rub your hands on to vanish fishy or feta smells! Of course the solution to your garlic-mincing problems is a tiny capsule on wheels with rotating blades that’s impossible to ever get clean!

Night after night I’ve ended shifts at foodservice jobs bearing that telltale feta-fish-garlic-bleach reek clinging to my hands so tenaciously that no amount of caressing stainless steel pods could alleviate it. Chefs wear this as a badge of honor. (And, to be honest, I think those post-kitchen fumes are more likely to get you laid than keep you from it.) We don’t have time to fuck around with gadgets.

Here’s my advice. Ditch the crap and do the thing you’re actually doing. I am hulling strawberries. I am sliding an egg into simmering water. I am peeling shrimp. Don’t put distance between you and your food. That fear—fear of handling, fear of contact—will shackle you to the hellacious gadget drawer, where you will languish, dependent on some company’s idea of a new way to sucker you out of your paycheck. Learning the hard way, gadget-free? It’s really the easy way.

I’m tempted to hold onto the tomato-holding tongs, just because they are so ridiculous. Besides, I don’t want them to re-enter the marketplace, where some hapless person will snatch them up at a charity yard sale thinking they’ve stumbled upon something helpful. Maybe I’ll take a city-wide collection of metal kitchen gadgets, which we will haul to the scrapyard for cash. With the proceeds we’ll host free knife skills classes. And the region I live in will be a gadget dead zone, because we’ll all be too busy getting down and dirty in the kitchen like grownups.   

This post originally appeared on Food Riot, where I contribute.