Kitchen Gadgets

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KITCHEN GADGETS. One of the earliest recorded uses of the term "gadget" was in 1886 as a nautical term referring to a small, somewhat specialized contrivance. It is unclear when the term first entered kitchen parlance, but the Oxford English Dictionary records the earliest use of the expression "kitchen gadget" as 1951 in the Good Housekeeping Home Encyclopedia, which remarked that kitchen gadgets are often discarded because it takes too much time to clean them.

A popular contemporary taxonomy of kitchen technology must account for the essential ambiguity of the term. Terms like "gadget," "utensil," "accoutrement," "tool," and "appliance" overlap. A kitchen gadget may be a specialized artifact used for the preparation of a single kind of dish or for performing one specific function across a variety of dishes. As such, it can be distinguished if only in a general sense from the broader term "kitchen utensil," which would include multipurpose and essential kitchen equipment, such as chefs' knives and large appliances like ovens and refrigerators. In modern usage the term "kitchen gadget" also may be pejorative. It is often used to refer to novelty items, gimmicky and cheap kitchen equipment that purports to ease the burdens of homemakers. As the usage in the Good Housekeeping Home Encyclopedia indicated, gadgets may be the kinds of products that accumulate in the back of kitchen drawers until they are discarded. Another aspect of the gadget is its symbolic character. Gadgets may be displayed as items that represent taste, newness, or status.

Although the term "gadget" originated in the late Victorian era, it is often used retroactively to refer to pre-Victorian forms of specialized kitchen equipment. Providing an account of early kitchen tools is difficult as such items rarely made their way onto household inventories. It is well established that, apart from the kitchens of the aristocracy, pre-Victorian cookery, at least in the British Isles, was almost entirely a matter of boiling in a pot, cauldron, or kettle; baking in an oven or on a bake stone; and roasting on a spit. A number of devices were designed to assist the pre-Victorian cook with each of these kitchen tasks.

Victorian Gadgets

The jack was one of the most useful Victorian aids. Roasting spits, also known as "broches," "peakes," or "flesh pikes," were mounted in the fireplace. A jack is a device that rotates the roasting spit without the constant attention of the cook. A great variety of techniques for spit rotation were designed over the years. The earliest jacks relied on a system of weights akin to those in a weight-driven clock for their slow and steady movement. Another early form of jack was the smokejack, first imported into England from Germany in the second half of the sixteenth century. The force of air and smoke rising in the fireplace chimney powered this kind of jack. Perhaps the most unusual were the animal-powered jacks, which relied on animals, such as dogs or geese. Geese were considered a better source of power, as dogs quickly became bored with the work and were far craftier than geese at shirking their duties. The most popular kind of jack was the windup or spring jack, which the Swedish botanist and noted traveler Pehr Kalm observed in almost every English home he visited in 1748.

Another kitchen implement from this era was the tin roaster. In its earliest form, a piece of wood lined with reflective tin was placed next to the meat to reflect the heat back and increase cooking efficiency. This arrangement evolved into a small and elegant device that only occupied the width of the fire bars. The tin roaster consisted of a tin enclosure to reflect heat back onto the meat, a dripping pan, and a door on the front through which the cook could baste and otherwise attend to the meat. Tin roasters often incorporated that other essential roasting gadget, a windup or bottle jack.

Another common kind of hearth-front gadget was the toaster. Hearthstones, a variety of toasting forks, and hinged devices mounted on the side of the hearth were all used to toast bread. One of the more common devices was the hearth toaster, a long-handled piece of cast iron that held the bread between small arches that could be swiveled to toast both sides of the bread.

Boiling and simmering called for some arrangement to regulate temperature by shifting pots closer to or farther away from the fire. The most basic technique used a series of pothooks or hangers of varying lengths. Another technique used a chain wrapped around a rod so it could be rotated. The chimney crane was perhaps the most elegant of these devices. The rod and hook techniques could only be used to move a pot up and down, whereas the chimney crane could move a pot through three dimensions. This afforded much more precise heat regulation than the hook or rod techniques and allowed the cook to move the pot out of the fireplace without directly picking it up. The chimney crane saw wide use, especially in southeastern England from the sixteenth century through the eighteenth century.

Within the great houses, an altogether more sophisticated battery of kitchen equipment existed. For example, inventories of the British estate Ham House from the 1670s and 1680s list sixty-two kinds of items. This list includes such specialized equipment as a tin apple roaster, colanders, a tin grater, a three-chain jack, a fish kettle and a carp pan with false bottoms, numerous larding pins, several mortars and pestles, pastry peels, a "rowling" (rolling) pin, skimmers, lark spits, iron toasting tongs, a wooden whisk, and a sieve (made of hair) along with the sundry common items like knives, pots, pans, and skillets.

The list of items at Ham House includes a number of "basons" (basins) of undesignated use. It is a safe assumption that they may be freezing basins. Hannah Glasse published several editions of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy from 1747 on. Each edition included instructions for making ice cream using two pewter basins, one with a tightly fitted lid enclosed within the larger basin. She suggested two kinds of basins. One, manufactured in France, was tall and cylindrical; the other was three-cornered and wedge-shaped. The wedge basin was used with three other identically shaped basins so the cook could make a multihued circle of ice cream.

During the Victorian era, the use of the hand-cranked ice cream machine became widespread. The English inventor William Fuller sold a pamphlet titled A Manual Containing Numerous Original Recipes for Preparing Neapolitan Ices along with a hand-cranked machine patented in 1853. The machines of Fuller and his competitors were popular with professional confectioners and the wealthier and innovative set. They were not in common use at the household level. The first hand-cranked machine was patented in the United States in 1848, and domestic versions were available in the 1860s. By the 1880s numerous hand-cranked machines were designed for the domestic market, and many were still available in the early twenty-first century. The basic ice cream machine is a coopered wooden bucket into which an enclosed rotating chamber is inserted. A hand crank rotates the chamber. The chamber is surrounded by ice and salt, which reduces the chamber's temperature low enough to congeal its contents.

Some of the characteristic beliefs of modernity are that everything can be known and that all nature can be mastered if one applies sufficient time, expertise, and specialized technology to the task. This positivism was the prevalent mindset of the Victorian era. It should come as no surprise that the term "gadget" originated in the 1880s as the Victorian era saw an immense explosion in the

Gadgets and their requisites
Gadget Requisite
Jack: weighted Hearth
Jack: smoke Hearth and flue
Jack: windup or bottle Hearth
Jack: animal-powered Hearth and obedient dog or goose
Tin roaster Hearth
Toaster Hearth or for modern forms electricity
Pothooks and hangers Hearth
Chimney crane Hearth
Tin apple roaster Hearth
Ice-cream maker: manual Ice, salt, and muscle power
Ice-cream maker: electric Electricity and either ice and salt or a refrigerator with a freezer compartment
Eggbeater Muscle power
Stand mixer Electricity and a variety of attachments, such as a whisk, flat paddle, or dough hook. Numerous other gadgets can be powered by a stand mixer, such as can openers, slicers and shredders, food grinders, fruit and vegetable strainers, grain mills, citrus juicers, pasta makers, and sausage stuffers.
Cafetiere Ground, roasted coffee and hot water
Espresso maker Hot water or electricity and finely ground, roasted coffee beans
Goblin Electricity and tea
Coffee grinder Electricity and roasted coffee beans
Coffee roaster Electricity and raw coffee beans
Percolator Electricity or alcohol for heat and roasted coffee beans
Drip coffee machine Electricity, filter, and roasted coffee beans

development of small and highly specialized tools. This proliferation of specialized technology existed across all spheres of human activity, including the domestic, where kitchen gadgets flourished. The number of kitchen gadgets invented or in widespread use for the first time during the Victorian era was immense.

A book like Isabella Beeton's The Book of Household Management (1861) was representative of this Victorian positivism. Beeton set out in 1,112 pages to inform the homemaker how to micromanage every aspect of domestic economy. Her list of thirty-seven essential kitchen utensils, including a bread grater, was far more involved than the kitchen inventories of most British households in the preceding century.

This era saw the invention of many new kitchen gadgets, including the apple peeler, other specialized peelers, the mechanical eggbeater, the mechanical dough mixer, bread toasters, potato mashers, coffee grinders, food choppers, and waffle irons. The African American inventor John Thomas White was issued a patent for a lemon squeezer in 1896. It consisted of two pieces of wood connected by a hinge. The bottom piece included a slotted opening so the juice of the lemon could pass through when the two pieces were squeezed together.

Modern Gadgets

Many modern kitchen gadgets are simply updated and electrified forms of kitchen gadgets developed in the Victorian era. The aforementioned home ice-cream makers are representative of this trend. In the 1950s electric models of the ice-cream maker were introduced. The earliest models simply replaced the hand crank with an electric motor. Models from the late 1960s were designed to fit into a refrigerator freezer. In the 1960s the two most prevalent kinds of contemporary ice-cream makers were developed. The relatively inexpensive prefreeze models featured an insert filled with refrigerant that was prefrozen in the refrigerator freezer. The second kind of ice-cream maker used a small, built-in freezer to congeal the ice cream or sorbet.

The toaster is another updated item. The first electric toasters were built in the early twentieth century immediately after the invention of a nickel and chromium alloy, trademarked as NiChrome, was used to make the first high-temperature electric heating elements. The first commercially viable electric toaster was the General Electric D-12, an open affair mounted on a ceramic base. Electrical toasters underwent a number of innovations, including metal and plastic enclosures and various slot sizes to accommodate changing tastes in bread. Toasters designed specifically for bagels have become common. The combination toaster and oven was popular in the 1980s, but its acceptance has steadily declined due to its general ineffectiveness at both toasting and performing the duties of a small oven.

The toaster oven is one of the more widespread representatives of the multiple-function gadget. The numerous representatives of these devices range from the ill-fated combination nutmeg grater and corkscrew patented by George Blanchard in 1856 to the kitchen equipment advertised on late-night television that can do "all this and so much more." Perhaps the most successful multipurpose kitchen gadgets are the appliances manufactured by companies like Bosch, KitchenAid, and Sunbeam derived from the 1884 eggbeater design of the African American inventor Willie Johnson. His eggbeater was powered by a driving wheel in conjunction with a system of gears and pulleys that rotated a set of beaters, blades, or stirrers.

The eggbeater was an updated and mechanized version of the kitchen whisk that further evolved into a wide variety of gadgets. One of the most significant was the electric mixer. The first American patent for an electric mixer was filed in 1885 by Rufus W. Eastman. The earliest electric mixers were large, clunky machines that in the twenty-first century would look more at home in a wood shop than in the kitchen. By the 1930s at least a dozen manufacturers made electric mixers, including the nearly ubiquitous Hobart (KitchenAid) and the Hamilton Sunbeam. The Sunbeam Mixmaster model M4A, which was first manufactured in 1930, was relatively streamlined in comparison to its competitors. Its name "Mixmaster" eventually became the generic term for a stand mixer.

The new stand mixers were not really gadgets so much as constellations of gadgets. The Sunbeam Mixmaster was advertised as capable, given the right attachments, of mixing, mashing, whipping, creaming, stirring, beating, extracting fruit juice, chopping, grinding, and blending. A twenty-first century advertisement for the KitchenAid Stand Mixer lists attachable accessories that include a can opener, a rotor slicer and shredder, a food grinder, a fruit and vegetable strainer, a food tray, a grain mill, a citrus juicer, a pouring shield, a pasta maker, a sausage stuffer, a flat beater, a dough hook, and a whisk.

Coffee and tea have inspired quite a few gadgets over the years, including kettles, cafetieres, espresso makers, goblins, grinders, roasters, percolators, and drip machines. The tea goblin or the teasmade is one of the more unusual kitchen inventions. This was a British invention of the 1930s that made tea on a timer. Goblins often featured alarm clocks, lamps, heating elements, and devices for placing the tea into the hot water. Coffee was traditionally prepared by the Turkish method of boiling the coffee until the development in 1806 in Germany of the percolator by the American Count Rumford, who saw coffee drinking as an alternative to the hard-drinking lifestyle of German workers. The drip coffee maker soon followed. Early models were heated by burning alcohol, replaced by electrical elements in the early twentieth century. Other inventions included the steam espresso maker, which forces steam through the ground coffee until it is condensed on the other side, and the cafetiere, of which the most popular model worldwide is the Danish Bodum. Americans have preferred drip and percolator models, and Italians have preferred espresso makers that rely on various mechanisms, from pressurized cylinders to straight steam pressure, to force steam through the coffee grounds.

Coffee and espresso makers have accumulated attachments to much the same extent as the stand mixer. The difference lies in the purpose of these attachments. Coffee and espresso appurtenances are components of the machine designed to complement a cup of coffee rather than to perform a wide range of kitchen tasks. These appurtenances include devices for scalding and frothing milk and grinding coffee built directly into the machine. Some coffee makers emulate the tea goblin. On a timer, they grind the coffee beans, insert the grounds into the filter, and then make the coffee.

Kitchen equipment is tied to representations of status, and coffee-making equipment is an ideal example. The first electric percolators were designed as elegant table centerpieces, and most coffee was preground and sold in vacuum-sealed tins. By the 1980s percolators were no longer considered the height of sophistication. An elegant North American coffee drinker used a drip coffee maker and ground his or her own beans. By the twenty-first century, a European method was preferred. An Alessi-designed cafetiere or an Italian espresso maker, such as one of the pressurized La Pavoni machines, or even a stovetop steam-pressured espresso maker signified good taste.

See also Beeton, Isabella; Coffee; Preparation of Food; Utensils, Cooking.


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Wesley Dean