My love/need relationship with all things bladed began in my Grandma’s kitchen, and it began with carbon steel – way before I knew what carbon steel was. It all started with her almost blackened butcher knife. When I say almost blackened, I mean it had a patina darkened to the point of being opaque, with the exception of the edge, which caught sunlight like a 4-carat diamond. I saw that knife make magic. It shifted easily from skinning squirrels, to scaling the bream and bass that we fished from the creek across the road, to peeling the skin off catfish, to butchering chickens with lightning (even then, it was better and cleaner than the pre-cut birds that disgrace – oops, I mean, that line our supermarkets today) speed. I remember that knife well, because it was the only one I remember her using. I don’t say that to say that we didn’t have other knives. I say that to say that was the only one that I saw her use to create works of art in the kitchen. And, to my eternal chagrin, it was the only one my beady fingers were NOT allowed to embrace. In my Grandma’s kitchen, children used butter knives, or as she called them, “safety knives”, exclusively. You had to get some age on you to use the real steel. And experience did not necessarily trump age, either. Like I said, Grandma was the only one I saw use that knife. I had aunts and uncles that would not even look at it the wrong way, when they were in the kitchen.
I saw a couple of kitchen crimes committed with that knife, as well. In the early 70s, if you lived in the country there was a very slim chance that you had a can opener, whether it be the kind you cranked or its electric big brother. That said – if you wanted a can opened, you had to use the tools you were given. In other words – I did say that butcher knife was magic, did I not? Now, I know that my knife purists are seething with rage at the idea of using a knife for anything but the delicate slicing of meat, or vegetables. And I’m right there with you… Now. But back then, I know that when my Grandma wanted a can of pinto beans opened, she was the only person I had ever seen with the singular ability to stab the outer rim of the can, and slide the knife around and open the can with a precision that would make an electric can opener curl up its cord in shame. Moreover, I don’t ever remember her spilling a single drop of bean juice on the counter. Ever. A samurai would have been impressed.
I remember around age 12, I got to actually touch that butcher knife. Not to use it, of course. But to sharpen it. And here, I make our reader cringe by relating that I used a file to sharpen the blade. Remember, this is the 70’s, we lived in the country, and this is what we used, because this is what we HAD. If it was to be sharpened, it took a couple strokes from the file, in Grandma’s house. Between the knife and her favorite pair of steel scissors (which I ended up liberating from her house after college), every couple of days, things had to be sharpened. I’m pretty sure that if there had been a sharpening steel in either of our awareness, that it might have been used, and more often at that. But being able to hold the blade was like a noble knight holding Excalibur, at least to be able to touch it. I sharpened that blade to within an inch of its life, every chance that Grandma allowed me to do so. And her admonishment, “Okay, that’s enough now,” always made me feel like play time was over.
When I started cooking (or, at least when I started not burning everything), I finally understood the love that cooks have for their knives. A sharp blade is a cook’s best friend as far as food is concerned. It makes the food look better even before it gets cooked. And I couldn’t wait to keep my blades sharp enough to cut air.
I still remember the first knife I bought. There are two experiences that I call the first knife that I bought. The very first one, was a 6-inch utility knife that was the sharpest knife that I had at that time. I still actually have it. It introduced me to somewhat stainless steel, and it showed me that if I wanted to ever come close to touching Grandma’s knife, I had to get my skills up without the benefit of her watchful eye. Which meant learning things the best and quickest way I knew how.
To the bookstore, Batman.
Now, as an English major, I have read a bunch of books that should have changed my life. Anything by Shakespeare, maybe? Dickens, right? Nope. The book I read that significantly shifted my life’s perspective in a major way – as in, it intellectualized cooking for me – Knives Cooks Love, in the Sur La Table series. Pertinent example – the section on how to cut up a chicken. Now, my grandmother passed before I got to wow her with my skills with a knife. So, the first couple times I tried to cut a chicken I butchered it…And not in the most pleasant sense, either. Grandma would have made faces. She wouldn’t have laughed, at least not while I was present. But I can hear her plain as day, “Son, we gotta start over. That ain’t the way we cut chickens. Let me show you…” So, when I stumbled across a copy of that book in TJ Maxx, I was instantly ready to go to the kitchen. Well, not yet. I was instantly ready to bury myself in that book.
What I learned: 1) You can cut the back out of a chicken with a butcher knife IF you want to. My Grandma could do that without batting an eyelash. And I respected her skill immensely. But I am an impatient soul, if I am nothing else. I needed something to get that back out. So I learned about kitchen shears. Suddenly, what took me about 15 minutes of sweaty, inaccurate butchery (in the worst sense of the word) turned into 5 or 6 minutes of joy.
The first time you see a chicken that YOU butchered the right way, with 8 pieces looking back at you and all possible skin intact, is truly priceless.
The fact that YOU did it, not the store, not some band saw, absolutely gives a sense of accomplishment when you like to cook as much as I do.
I remember distinctly thinking that my grandmother would definitely be smiling at that point. And then I learned that 2) if you can cut up a chicken, you can cut anything with a knife. A good set of knives can really make you a better cook. All of a sudden, your hash browns look professionally cut and they brown evenly. Your food looks as good as it tastes. It even cooks better, as it is cut more evenly. You enjoy cooking simply because you get to cut something. And the more you have fun in the kitchen, the more you want to. That feeling gave me the confidence to progress to the second first-knife-I-ever-bought – a beautiful 10-inch Global chef’s knife that feels like it’s an extension of my fingers. More on that later.
I never forgot that butcher knife that Grandma wouldn’t let any of us touch. As I get older, and get more knives in my kitchen, I see why. It’s almost like the knife becomes an extension of yourself. You end up treating it just like one of your babies. If you do find yourself allowing someone to touch it, you hope that they have the decency to respect and cherish it like you do. (Be prepared for them not to do so, however.) I got a set of Forgecraft knives with the carbon steel and I felt like Grandma smiled on that day. Even though I have a couple of wildly expensive knives on my magnet in the kitchen, it always feels special when I grab one of those Forgecrafts. It feels like Grandma is there with me. And derned if it doesn’t feel like that chicken falls apart faster. And that patina is almost chocolate. Just like Grandma’s.