Sunday, June 5, 2011

Taking Stock: Kitchen Equipment Then and Now

When it’s time to go to my kitchen and “rattle the pots and pans” to get a meal ready, I have pretty much all the equipment I need: pots, pans, electric stove, mixing and chopping tools, bowls, platters, and cutlery. Recently I discovered a kitchen inventory list in Grandma VandenBergh's cookbook, which details the most up-to-date equipment available to the Dutch housewife of the early 20th century  --  a sort of “frugal gourmet” of the not-so-roaring Twenties.

Family lore recalled by my one of my cousins says that back in the Netherlands around the turn of the 20th century, my grandmother’s family was apparently so poor that they would pass a sugar cube around the table and each take a turn dipping it in their teacup. But by the early ‘20’s, when my grandparents had been in the United States for ten years, they were prosperous enough to purchase most of the kitchen supplies they needed. 

Simple Hearty Fare Cookbook
The inventory in the cookbook by Martine Wittop Koning, whose title can be translated as “Simple Hearty Fare” is an exhaustive list of 70 items ranging in size from stove to paring knife. The list reflects the resourcefulness and frugality of a different time and place; for example, the 1-liter ceramic pudding mold it includes can be replaced by a few teacups. In comparing the inventory with my own kitchen equipment, I found it interesting to categorize the items in terms of those that are pretty much the same in our day and age, those that may be similar but in a more modern form, those that are not found in a modern kitchen anymore, and things that we have that were not yet imagined in the 1920’s. 

Pretty much the same

The largest item on the list, a coal or gas stove would now likely be electric or gas. Pots and colander are described as enamel or aluminum; I believe you can still get something pretty similar at any household equipment store. My modern pots and pans are copper-clad stainless steel Revere Ware, and my colander is a bright blue plastic.

Small utensils haven’t changed much. Those listed by Martine Koning include tea strainer (I don’t think they had tea bags back in the ‘20’s), skimmer, potato peeler, large knife, paring knife, meat fork and serving utensils. She also lists an iron frying pan; I love mine, from my mother’s kitchen! I prefer it to the non-stick frying pans whose coating flecks away after scraping off too many pancakes with the wrong utensil.

The inventory also includes a trashcan with lid, which would be metal, not plastic in those days, an oven-proof baking dish or casserole, platters and serving dishes, and various sizes of basins and bowls.

A more modern form

In lieu of our modern kitchen fire extinguisher, Grandma’s book cites a sand bin with a scuttle, “which should always be kept near the gas stove.”

“A [hand-operated] meat grinder with various blades” would now be a food processor with a plethora of accessories and attachments. A tin or ceramic pudding mold would likely now be made of non-stick metal or a rubbery synthetic material.

Not used anymore

I have a vague childhood memory of Grandma’s coal-burning stove, but I’m not even sure if it’s a real or imagined mental picture. If she did have a coal stove, she would also have needed a coal bin, scuttle, pair of tongs, and poker, as listed in the inventory. And a “hay chest with a 1 ½ liter capacity,” which I suppose was used for kindling.

A grinding stone would have been used for sharpening knives and other tools; a galvanized iron wash basin would now more likely be plastic. An egg beater  --  can you even buy those anymore? I remember my mother’s hand-operated egg beater with Bakelite handle, but now I use a wire whisk or an electric mixer, depending on the recipe I’m preparing.

We don’t need a “fly cover” anymore, except maybe for potato salad at picnics. We have screens on our windows instead. But I remember that one relative visiting from Holland several years ago told my Mom that in the days before window screens, Dutch window frames and doorways were traditionally painted blue, because people believed that this prevented flies from entering the house. I thought that was an interesting theory.

We rarely see a kitchen scale or postal meter in a modern American kitchen, unless the cook is fanatic about counting calories. But this was and still is standard equipment in a modern European home, since European cookbooks give most measurements in metric weight, rather than volume. However, the inventory also includes a dL. (deciliter) measuring cup for liquids.

One last item that is a vestige of the past is an enamel soap baker, apparently a receptacle for molding homemade soap. These days the only people I know who make their own soap are crafters who make beautifully scented soaps to sell at craft fairs.

Modern inventions and other “missing” items

Modern Small Appliances
Although Bakelite was invented in the first decade of the 20th century, it apparently didn’t come into common use in household utensils until later. There are no plastic items listed in Grandma’s kitchen inventory. Another obvious category of missing things are electric appliances; such gadgets as my electric toaster, mixer, blender, coffee grinder, coffee maker, sandwich griller, and crock pot wouldn’t make their appearance in the kitchen until much later.

Obviously, there isn’t any microwave mentioned either. And no can opener, either hand-operated or electric (unless that was one of the two or three items I was unable to translate). It seems that Martine Koning believed in using only fresh ingredients, or in canning or preserving your own foodstuffs. That is also a do-it-yourself project that seems to have come back into vogue recently.

There is a hairnet listed, but no apron or dish towels. Perhaps these last would be considered household linens rather than kitchen equipment.

Surprisingly, the inventory makes no mention of refrigerator or icebox. This omission made me curious to research when this item came into common use. The history of the refrigerator turned out to be a long and confused story. Depending on which source I consulted, I learned that it was invented in different times and places; the differences were various types of coolants that were attempted and improved on by assorted researchers working in a number of different countries. According to www.whoinventedit.net , the first practical home refrigerator was invented by Marcel Audiffen, a French physics teacher, and was produced by General Electric around 1911. This early version cost $1,000  --  twice the price of a car at the time  --  which may explain why it was not yet considered an essential home appliance.

Speaking of cost, a unique element of Martine Koning’s approach is that not only is the cost of each item in the kitchen inventory listed, but the price of each ingredient of every recipe, so that the cook may prepare a grocery budget. Prices are listed in guilders (abbreviated f. for florin), which amount to pennies when compared to today’s costs. As you may guess, the most expensive item in the inventory is the stove (70 guilders), and next the steamer (20 guilders), down to the two iron forks, which cost a mere ten cents each.

Today a modern gas or electric range might cost as little as $300 up to well over a thousand dollars for a fancy version with a convection oven. A steamer might range from $20 to over $60, depending on the store and the model.  And if you search on the Internet you might find an economy stainless steel serving fork for a dollar and a half.

Nowadays we also have the added convenience of purchasing our kitchen equipment on credit and over the Internet. Thus when your best friend’s daughter in California is getting married, all you need to do is a few clicks online, and your gift of Mikasa dinnerware or George Foreman grill is off to the other side of the country.

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The kitchen inventory does not mention any type of meat tenderizer (unless that is another of the Dutch terms I was unable to translate). But I found a recipe in the cookbook that calls for such a utensil:

Beef Top Round Steak
- 1 pound top round steak
- 1/4 cup butter or margarine (a half stick)
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/4 cup milk

Tenderize the meat by pounding it with a meat tenderizer. Do not use a tenderizer with points or blades, which may puncture the meat, allowing the meat juices to ooze out. Simply striking the meat will loosen the fibers. You can use a wooden spoon or the flat side of the meat tenderizer.

Wash the meat and dry with paper towels. (The original recipe says with a clean towel or brown paper. In our day and age, we have paper towels for such a task.)

Heat half of the margarine in a frying pan until it becomes light brown. Place the meat in the pan and cook for 6-8 minutes. 

Do not prick or puncture the meat; that would allow the juices to run out. Turn it over several times, and push it around in the pan so as to brown it.

Place the meat on a warm platter and set aside.

Make the gravy by adding the rest of the margarine to the pan, letting it brown, and adding the milk little by little, stirring constantly. Simmer for about 3 minutes until the gravy thickens slightly. 

Top Round Steak

I don't have a meat tenderizer, so I used a wooden spoon  --  the most low-tech kitchen utensil you could think of. But it worked! Usually when I cook this cut of meat, it is tough and chewy, but this time it really was more tender. 

I recall my mother cooking beef steak in butter or margarine, and found that a bit surprising at the time, since beef can already be quite fatty. However, the margarine does help the meat brown nicely, and gives it a nice flavor. But I would not recommend this recipe to anyone who needs to watch their cholesterol level.

I did not use any salt in the recipe, since the margarine was salted, and I suspect that the butter or margarine in the Netherlands in the 1920's was not. Without added salt, the gravy contained a lot less sodium than the instant packets of gravy which are so convenient, but so salty. I would also use only about half the quantity of margarine called for the next time I try this recipe, to cut down on the fat.

I also found it unusual to make a gravy with milk, but it seemed to be a successful experiment. If you try it, be very careful when pouring the milk into the hot pan with the melted margarine, as it can splatter quite a bit. I served the meat with potatoes and green beans, which made it a balanced meal.


Note: The first section of this essay was first published in The Altamont Enterprise on April 28, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

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