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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Appliances of the Devil

About ten years before she died, my grandmother was given a food processor and a fancy stand mixer by my rich uncle, the one who went to work for International Business Machines back when they were first getting involved with electronic computation devices. I laughed that she was using these newfangled gadgets while I was looking for the strongest wooden spoons I could find for mixing my cookie dough by hand.

I've long eschewed motorized and electronic gadgets for doing things that could just as easily, or more easily, be done by simpler means, particularly when the net cost of acquiring and using the gadget exceeds any net savings in terms of time or effort. An extreme example is the Segway Personal Transporter, which essentially does away with all that tedious effort involved with walking - the only exercise most people get. But this particular rant is directed at household appliances.

First on my list is the microwave oven. Oh, you kids these days take them for granted, but I remember when the Amana Radar Range was the item to have in your kitchen. My family didn't get its first microwave oven until 1983 ("Chiefs" was on TV the night that my mother and grandmother brought it home.) I tried out a few recipes from the hardcover cookbook that was included in the box, and none of them came out tasting anything like what I expected. Eventually we worked out that a microwave oven could never completely replace a conventional oven. You couldn't put metal in it, it heated things unevenly (creating patterns of burned stuff next to uncooked stuff), and conventional oven recipes could not be easily transcribed for microwave cooking. So we came to the conclusions that most other people did: it's OK for defrosting things at low power, for reheating leftovers, for softening ice cream and butter, for refreshing bread that had dried out, and, until the advent of cookware and frozen meals designed explicitly for microwave ovens, not much else.

Next let's move on to food processors and electric mixers. A food processor will chop, slice, grind, and otherwise mangle food for you in a fast and painless way. Balderdash! Give me a strong, sharp knife, a mortar and pestle, and a cast-iron meat grinder any day of the week. And electric mixers? Some of my fondest childhood memories are of watching my mom make chocolate chip cookie dough in her old chrome electric mixer. The smell and sound of the motor were just as exciting as the fluffy, whipped appearance of the batter...until the day that the motor burned out. After that my mom moved on to a series of hand-held electric beaters, none of which have survived more than a few years. I make cookies the manly way, using brute force, a stout wooden spoon, and a hand-held mixing bowl. Or, if the dough becomes too difficult to work with the spoon, I roll up my sleeves and mix it with my hands. (I told my friends that a lot of sweat went into making the Christmas cookies I gave out as gifts this year. I don't know how many of them realized I was speaking literally.) Still, the KitchenAid mixer is a work of art, and a damned fine looking piece of engineering. If ever I were to stray from the path of righteousness and brute strength, that might be where I would go.

My brother, sister and I all chipped in to get our mom a dishwasher about ten years ago, and she's still using it. As far as a labor-saving device goes, dishwashers do the job quite well. Unfortunately, they do the job of cleaning dishes somewhat less well. Every utensil, dish, bowl, mug, and glass must be checked at the completion of the wash cycle to confirm that the dishwasher has not simply engaged in a redistribution of food debris. If you can hack it, this is another case where brute force - and the magic of soap and water - can get the job done just as well as, or even better than, the mechanized substitute.

Two other devices require honorable mention, at least. One is the television, particularly the gigantic flatscreen beasts that were in huge demand this past Christmas, despite the fact that nobody seemed to have any money. Once upon a time televisions were simple things, essentially radio receivers that would pluck a signal from the air and transform it into a moving picture of Lucille Ball or David Brinkley or astronauts returning from space. If they broke, you would pack them into the car and haul them to the repair shop downtown, where a man would pop off the back, pull out some tubes, and test them to see if they had gone bad. In the 1970's TVs evolved into pieces of furniture called floor consoles, and they were too big to haul in to the repair shop - so the TV repair man would come to you. Eventually TVs became smaller, cheaper, more portable, and all electronic, so there were no more tubes to replace - and in many cases it was cheaper to replace the TV with a new one than to repair the old one. But now televisions are once again huge and expensive, and TV repair men are once more making house calls.

The other device, of course, is the home computer, particularly when it is connected to the Internet. More than just a TV with a typewriter keyboard attached and a fancy calculator inside, this appliance is...well, what isn't it? A tool for instant worldwide communication, an access device to billions of documents, videos, audio clips, images, a global commons, an infinitely large storehouse of pornography, the ultimate time No, there is nothing at all wrong with any of this. The other things, sure, they're the tools of the Devil - or, more accurately, the appliances of the devil. But not computers. No. No. No.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a few hundred friends' blogs to catch up on...


MaryRuth said...

The first two things I purchased for my first apartment (in 1978) were a KitchenAid mixer and a maple-top prep table. I still have both. I use the table daily. My Cuisinart is 20 years old. Even though I love to cook, I couldn't imagine making cookie dough or a cake by hand. I tried whipped cream once and I thought my arm would fall off!
Dishwashers are a joke.
Hi-def TVs are too scary, but I do like the flat screens (small ones!) because they are less "shrine-like" than a CRT set.

D.B. Echo said...

Arrrgh, I meant to include a note saying I could not imagine making meringue without an electric mixer - though it's possible I have. I have whipped cream using an egg beater, so I know it can be done!

joy said...

Microwave = popcorn :-)

D.B. Echo said...

Joy, I used to work with someone who made microwave popcorn every day. And more often that seemed possible, she would burn it, once setting the bag on fire. (I threw it in the sink and turned on the water.)

If you can, get one of those old-fashioned looking stovetop poppers with a crank and wire stirrers. It makes popcorn much faster, and the popcorn tastes infinitely better than the chemical stuff that comes out of a microwave popcorn bag!