My One and Only Spatula

Tools

When I was a kid, it took me a long time to unravel the mystery of the yo-yo. For years I’d fling the damned thing just like everybody else, and then watch as it’d zip down to the end of the string and…just hang there, leaving me with a yo-yo on the end of a string. The other kids didn’t seem to have this problem. Their yo-yos came back up. This went on and on until I was about 10 years old, when finally one afternoon, in the hallway outside of Mrs. Runyan’s art room, on a borrowed Duncan Imperial, it happened. I twitched at just the right instant, and the yo-yo crawled back up the string and into my waiting hand. Like magic. I offered to buy the yo-yo on the spot. The owner, who was a year younger than me, thought I was nuts, though that didn’t stop him from taking the crumpled dollar I offered.

Years later, I still believe in the magic of certain inanimate objects. This is not A Zen Thing or any other sort of weird spiritual notion. It’s just that certain things are, you know, better. Like the good sauté pan. Or your best knife. I have two 10-inch chef’s knives that are absolutely identical in every respect–except that one of them is just better than the other. I don’t think I’m alone here in observing these kinds of things and how they just sort of flit through our lives.

A few years ago my wife, Lynn, brought home a spatula that she’d found on the sale table at one of the local Fashionista Outlets. I admit, I don’t usually associate kitchen gear with discounted fashion, so I was more than a little dubious, but that’s where she found it. It had a sleek, slightly modernist look to it, with a stainless steel tubular handle and a blade that was as thin and sleek and agile as a whippet. In my hand it felt light and balanced and more like a surgeon’s instrument than a kitchen tool. It also made a lovely wrang! when I whacked it on the stovetop, which I particularly liked because it made me feel like a real chef. It was perfect.

At the time, I had four or five other spatulas stashed in various drawers, but they didn’t even come close. Some were stiff and heavy, others were just plain ugly, still others were made of odd plastics that didn’t make a very satisfying noise when thwacked on the counter. I used my little beauty for everything requiring a light touch, the perfect flip, or, truth be told, when I wanted to look like I knew what the hell I was doing, seeing as it would slip unnoticed beneath a fragile egg, separate a fillet of fish from its skin with ease, and cause omelets to roll over flawlessly, just like in the illustrations from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I also liked that little wrang! noise quite a lot.

Those occasions when it was misplaced, I’d tear the kitchen apart in a frantic search, slamming drawers and accusing loved ones of treachery until I found it. There was shouting. There were accusations. It was complicated.

Then one day, with a slight tink, it was all over. It happened while I was making a grilled cheese sandwich. Right at the point where that beautiful supple blade met that lovely handle, my little beauty broke. Maybe the blade was a little too supple. Maybe I’d pressed down a little too zealously on that damned sandwich. Whatever it was, one thing was certain. The magic was gone.

After that I went into a funk. I was searching, hoping, like a spurned lover, for just one more chance. My first stop, naturally, was the Fashionista Outlet. The store manager, who was all of 14 years old, asked if this “spatula thing” was part of the new Jimmy Choo collection, at which point I walked out massaging my temples. From then on I decided to concentrate my search along more traditional lines. If there’s a kitchen shop within 200 miles of where I live, you can bet I’ve sidled up to their wall of implements and hefted, flexed, and surreptitiously whacked each spatula, hoping for that happy little wrang! Nothing. I’ve  pulled store clerks aside and asked if maybe they had any others, perhaps tucked away somewhere in the back? “No,” they always said with emotionless finality. Then there’d inevitably be an uncomfortable pause while I stood there, forlorn, looking at them before I shuffled off.

I endured two years of this. Actually, I should say we endured this. The entire while Lynn pretended all of this was perfectly normal behavior, bless her.

I finally found what I thought I was seeking last fall, wandering around down in Portland with some friends. It could’ve been at a kitchen place, it may have been a bookstore, I don’t really remember the details, I was just so deliriously happy. The spatula looked exactly the same–the same tubular handle, same supple blade, same sleek look–except this model has the manufacturer’s name helpfully printed on the handle. I bought it and brought it home and, for the last few months, we’ve been getting to know one other. To be honest, it’s a little like trying to fall in love with the twin of the girl who jilted you. It may look identical, but the handle and balance feel only vaguely familiar and there’s something off with the blade. The suppleness isn’t there, the flexibility is different, and when I slap it against the stove it calls out with more of a brank! The magic just isn’t there. My heart weeps.

I still have the broken pieces of my original stashed in a kitchen drawer. Perhaps, if they’re really as magical as I think they are, they’ll heal themselves.

Editor’s note: We suspect that Casner isn’t the only one to have a deeper-than-rational attachment to an inanimate kitchen object. Tell us yours.

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About Rick Casner

Rick Casner is an architect and part-time ski instructor, or a ski instructor and part-time architect, depending on how and when you ask. He divides his time roughly evenly between Tacoma, Washington, and Stowe, Vermont, according to whim, work, and snow conditions. During his long drives back and forth across the country he thinks about stuff. He also writes a little.

Comments
Comments
  1. Susan says:

    Oh, Rick, you had me at “thrang”; I know that sound. it has slight resonance at the finish of the trang, right? I had one like that, too, but the handle was different than the one you had. It was the only spatula I could use to turn pancakes. I have no clue where I got it (most likely a thrift store) but it was my favorite for that job. The ‘blade’ got bent when someone forced the drawer it was kept in, to close. It was never the same after that as there was no way to get the blade back to it’s original flat, springy self. I was so pist! Every time I go into a thrift store or to a garage sale, it’s on my mental list of things to look for, it has been for years.

    • Rick Casner says:

      Hey Susan, thanks for reading and taking a minute to comment. I imagine that somewhere, off in some parallel Universe or Spatula Heaven, our two spatulas have met and chatted some about what rich lives they lived….or, maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself here.

  2. Monica Bhide says:

    I love it! I have a spatula that is old and broken but have no desire for a new one. The old one carries memories that a new one never could :-) Enjoyed your piece a lot.

    • Rick Casner says:

      Thanks Monica, I’m glad you liked this piece. It was fun to write. I’d suggest that your spatula isn’t old, not really….it’s just more experienced.

  3. Lauralee Hensley says:

    Mine is finding the right can opener again. No, I don’t like the electrical ones, but with a small grip, I don’t like heavy handled or padded handled ones either. I’ve been looking for about three months now, and I know I’ll find the one I want one day. My husband, however, doesn’t get it and has tried to talk me into other ones to no avail. LOL.

    • Rick Casner says:

      Hey Lauralee! (God I still love that name… I spent a good chunk of my life in Kentucky & you would have fit right in down there.) Now, regarding your husband, I’d be careful. I’ve noticed that whenever I try to explain my little affairs with kitchen equipment to Lynn she tends to become a little…distant. Admittedly I sound nutty, even to me, but that’s beside the point. Good luck with your search for that can opener & thanks for your note.

  4. Maureen says:

    For me – it is a bottle opener and it’s not mine but one of my oldest friends. It is perfect, old brass, just the right weight and design to magically open that beer bottle. It is what we all reach for when at her house. It will be mine one day – it is in the will and I have read it to make sure. Others have shamefully asked for it but nope, it is mine. There is a signup sheet for who inherits it after I am no longer able to experience that magic of prying open a bottle.

    • Rick Casner says:

      Absolutely brilliant!!! Will spend the afternoon drafting up proposed ammendments to friends’ wills. Great note, Maureen, thanks.

    • Rick Casner says:

      Absolutely brilliant!!! Will spend the afternoon drafting proposed ammendments to friends’ wills. Thanks for a great note Maureen!

  5. James in Oamaru says:

    I have a similar thing, though in my case it’s a cheap soup skimmer that I bought in Beijing a few years ago. It’s the perfect device for removing scum from a simmering pot of chicken stock. A couple of weeks ago, the handle came away from the bowl and I thought that would be that, but I took it to a local engineering company and they welded it back together for me, good as new! In fact, it’s actually better than new, since they strengthened the joint between the two parts so it won’t happen again! See if someone near you can fix your spatula!

    • Rick Casner says:

      James, and I thought I was nuts. Let me see if I’ve got this right. You go to China to buy a soup skimmer, it breaks so you hire an engineering firm to fix/redesign the thing…? It sounds like the only people you missed were at NASA, who must have been busy working on rockets or something. We are brothers, James, straight through to the core. The truth, not written, but true: I tried duct tape.

  6. Beth says:

    As a fellow writer, I applaud you! What an entertaining read about a spatula!

    I can relate insofar as I once owned a spatula that had belonged to a great aunt. (She had left everything in her kitchen to me.) My mother loved that spatula. She never explained why, but she commented often about how much she liked to use it. So, one year, for Christmas, I put it in a box, wrapped it up, and gave it to her as a stocking stuffer. She was delighted! “Where did you find another one?!” she asked. “It’s mine,” I said. “Well, now it’s yours.”

    Damn if she didn’t nearly cry. I had no great affinity for it, other than its provenance. But mom loved it. Continues to love it. It’s at the front of her utensil crock, within easy reach.

    • Rick Casner says:

      What a good tale! I say this for a couple of reasons: First, because you model empathy, which I think is in too short supply these days, and secondly, because you’ve noticed that sometimes transformation of things from the banal to the treasured. I guess we could call it The Velveteen Rabbit Effect. Thanks for reading and your comment. It means a lot.

      • Beth says:

        Aw, yes, “The Velveteen Rabbit Effect.” That’s sweet. I hope that your first spatula is now frolicking happily with real, live spatulas.

  7. Sofia says:

    Rick,
    As I read your writing I could absolutely imagine it happening to me, as I am a sucker for kitchen gadgets, whatever they may be, as long as they are ergonomic, feel right while I’m holding them in my hand, and are nicely designed. Also having graduated in architecture and working still in the design field, the “look, weight, and ergonomics” are an important aspect when I choose my kitchen utensils. Yet there is that knife… that old, partly broken knife… My husband has tried to substitute it with the latest state-of-the-art ones, and my mother-in-law, too, yet I cannot seem to part with it. The problem is, it doesn’t even cut. I sharpen it every day, and I hope a miracle will happen each time I use it, but nothing. Still dull as can be, destroying every piece of food I attempt to cut…or rather, shred. I love how it feels, i love its weight, and for that I will never be able to throw it away.

    • Rick Casner says:

      Ah, Sophia…this is where you and I pause for a moment at that great intersection between the worlds of Design and–brace yourself here, Sophia–Romantic Sentimentality. From a design standpoint, this should keep you well occupied for the rest of your professional life. From a life standpoint, this will keep you at least bearable to people outside the design world and a little skeptical about all that design stuff we learned. I’m of course curious about where you went to school and what you’re working on now but we’ll leave that for another time. Mostly though, thanks for your note.

  8. Jane Stilgenbauer says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one. Growing up I did a lot of cooking so I was devastated when I came home on a college break to find “my” wooden spoon had broken. I also had a favorite short-handled spatula and just found a replacement from Lee Valley tools. After I used it and was happy I quickly ordered another–I’m 67 so I figure I’m good for life.

    • Rick Casner says:

      I want to know who the bastard was who broke your spoon! Also, and I hate to break this to you, Jane, I think you’re going to have to count on about 15 years of solid use per spatula, because if you’re shrewd enough to be buying kitchen stuff at a woodworker’s supply place, I suspect you’re going to be flipping stuff well into your 90s. Thanks for a great note!

  9. Cherie DeAndrea says:

    My most beloved kitchen tool would have to be a metal mesh strainer, currently rusted and with a hole in it. Yet it sits proudly at the top of the stack of all of the other strainers I now own. In the early 1980′s, while my then-husand was in law school, we lived on a very tight budget. My dream was to go to culinary school after he completed law school. There was a fabulous cooking store close to my work in Encino, CA, and they hosted a charity event with Julia Child as the guest chef. I couldn’t afford to attend the event, however the store discounted all of the equipment she had used. I had very little money in my pocket and there was absolutely nothing I could afford, with the exception of this beautiful strainer. I struggled to convince myself it was okay to spend the $8 or $10. Now, some 30 years later, that strainer has has been used to prepare hundreds of meals and traveled to many different homes with me. I could not bear to part with it when it finally tore. Every time I open the drawer where it is stored, I am reminded of one of the most legendary chefs who influenced my love for great food and most importantly, the best memories of family and friends who I have fed along the way.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      Beautiful, Cherie. Just…beautiful.

      • Rick casner says:

        Couldn’t have said it better… It’s amazing how simple things can pick up that emotional content. My wife Lynn has a bag of cookie cutters used by her grandmother. They are just like any others, but when her grandmother died, all Lynn wanted from a house full of stuff were those cookie cutters. Enough said.

  10. Dan Kraan says:

    My spatulas and stir-sticks seem to live a rough life, never lasting more than a couple of years. Perhaps you can chock it up to poor selection or a heavy hand on my part. Fortunately, the love of my kitchen hasn’t broken yet – hope it never does. It’s a long, thin, serrated knife that I bought in a grocery store for a couple of dollars, almost 30 years ago. It still holds a prominent position in my knife rack, it still cuts tomatoes wafer thin, and if it were a just bit longer, I wouldn’t need my bread knife! I can’t tell you the make, ‘cuz it only says “stainless” on the blade.

  11. Cynthia says:

    I wore through two of the tines of my favorite whisk. I still have it. I’m thinking of hanging it on the wall as some sort of trophy. For what I’m not sure.

    • Lindsay Myers says:

      Cynthia, I understand! Some call it pack-rat mentality, perhaps, but I prefer to think of it as the immortalization of a treasured tool.

      • Rick Casner says:

        Lindsay I really like your use of the verb ‘immortalization’ here. Suggesting of course that ‘resurrection’ might well be a reasonable possibility…

    • Rick Casner says:

      Before I get in too deep here Cynthia I’d need to know a little more about the age of your….ah…relationship. For example, if your whisk has been steady in use since, oh say 1930 or so, then this wear might be a ‘Badge of Honor’. If, on the other hand, this whisk is only a couple years old this could be a sign that maybe you’re whisking… a little too much. In any event, hang that little guy up on the wall. He’s earned it. Mostly though, thanks for your note. I really got a kick out of it.

  12. Chiyo U. says:

    I love my wooden spatula—not too skinny, not too wide—the handle is perfect for my small hand. I bought it in Japan 23 years ago when I moved to an apartment after graduating from college. It accompanied me to the United States five years later (yes, I flew over the Pacific Ocean with a spatula, and I’m NOT embarrassed to admit it) when I pursued graduate work here. From ramen noodles to beef bourguignon, omelet to pad Thai, this thing has stirred, sautéed, and flipped many, many meals without splitting or becoming misshapen. The flat end has darkened over the years looking pretty seasoned. I wonder if my attorney would roll his eyes if I told him I want to include a spatula in my will . . .

    • Lindsay Myers says:

      I love that your spatula came with you, Chiyo. That shows real dedication and love. How wonderful that it has stayed in such good shape.

    • Rick Casner says:

      Thanks for your note Chiyo. There really is something about natural materials and how they feel in our hand. Great point!

  13. Brenda Carleton says:

    That has to be my 15 lb granite mortar and pestle. I walk by it, look at it and smile, as though it were an animate object and half expect a response. Sort of like how when I walk by a plant and accidentally break off a flower or bud and apologize to it. Anyway, my M&P is hefty and perfect and commands its own prominent area on the counter beside my treasured VitaMix and KA stand mixer. Whether I am merely grinding black peppercorns or if I am grinding a blend of roasted exotic spices, the act of using my mortar and pestle gives me such satisfaction and joy. It is primal. Earthy. Relaxing. Stress relieving. Our guests luckily get to view it like a museum piece and I am hopeful, almost holding my breath, in eliciting the same feeling in them but most of the time I am met with blank stares or something like, “So, how about this weather we’re having?” But my foodie friends get it. They understand the perfect craftmanship, how the mortar grinds in the intelligently-placed rough grooves in the pestle. How everything that is ground in it tastes far better than in those…snicker…puny marble mortar and pestles (of which I have 2). It can easily handle large batches of pesto. Heck – it would do serious damage if an intruder made his/her way inside the house! (Did I mention it is multi purpose?)

    If someone were to steal my beloved tool (and who could blame them?) I believe it would almost throw me into a panic. The search for this particular mortar and pestle took me over two YEARS. I was relentless and did not stop until I shockingly saw it in a specialty store in a little town while I was just poking around. There it was – just sitting there. How could this be? This town was in the middle of nowhere! I quickly snatched it (well, heaved it) onto the counter. I was in love already. The cost did not matter. It would be mine regardless. It was expensive but I did not even flinch at the price. The cashier could have told me it was $500 and I would have happily handed it over in a blind stupor.

    My mortar and pestle has had a lot of use. Cooking class students, after trying it out, have attempted to find one but so far no one has been successful. I do not know the brand. It looks the same today as it did years ago. All I know is that it works hard and deserves every bit of affection I give to it (which is a lot).

    • Lindsay Myers says:

      Brenda, this sounds like such a special tool in SO many ways! Let’s hope it stays with you for many many years. It sounds like one-of-a-kind.

      • Cherie DeAndrea says:

        I love your story and I get it – there are cooking items I would pay anything for. I have pans (broken mesh strainers – see above), spatulas, spoons, cups and flour sifters from 1930 – cooking life would not be the same without them. Embrace your mortar & pestle – we will turn our heads or simply applaud. . .

        • Lindsay Myers says:

          Great sentiment Cherie–although it sounds like most of these folks wouldn’t accept any amount of money for their treasured items!

    • Rick Casner says:

      Thanks Brenda. There is an old lesson having to do with the idea that simple things reflect the concern and care with which they are made. This is obviously true of your morter and pestle but more to the point, true of the meals that you prepare using it. Thanks again for your story.

      • Brenda Carleton says:

        I cook with passion and love and treat my tools the same. I am truly grateful for these special tools that bring so much joy. They can be something that we also take for granted. Your article is such a great reminder that we really have a lot to be thankful for! :-)

  14. Melissa Maedgen says:

    My “one and only” is an odd one, perhaps. It’s a pot holder. I got it about 25 years ago, and I have no idea where it came from. If it ever had a tag, it’s long gone. It’s a simple black square, with a dense terrycloth on both sides. Dense is the key word here. I have never found another potholder that works so well without being bulky. It’s also smaller than potholders seem to be these days, about 6″ X 6″. Faded and stained, it is the most unassuming thing in what is otherwise a well-equipped kitchen. There is no quilted padding, no unnecessary pocket. Just a terrycloth square. I have tried other terrycloth potholders since, and the terry is never as dense on them, and they are larger, which really doesn’t help, and have these useless features, such as the pocket on one side. I hate them all. I’ve also tried all the fancy arm-length welder’s gloves some people like to use for grilling. Overkill. I’ve tried the silicone coated mitts, the solid silcone pads, all awkward. Nothing, absolutely nothing, works as well as this little square. If I could find one like it today, I would by 20 or so. A lifetime supply. Maybe several lifetimes, as this one has held up for 25 years and is still going strong. I just wish I could clone it!

    • Rick Casner says:

      Great note Melissa! Thanks & boy do we agree on potholders. I persist in using just a folded kitchen towel, mostly because I can’t stand the cutesy sayings or illustrations on some potholders and I don’t want to wear a set of gloves that make me look like a welder. But if I had your little gizmo…

  15. Darlene West says:

    Nicely crafted essay! I love the yo-yo lead, and how you linked back to the magic theme at the end.

    • Rick Casner says:

      Wow, Darlene, thanks for your comment and for noting the yo-yo element. Until you’ve tried it, you can have no idea just how satisfying it is to use the word yo-yo in a written sentence. I wanted to use it a lot more. Really, though, thanks a lot.

  16. Adriana Pecunia says:

    When my beloved white mug with a red heart bearing the inscription “Je t’aime mon petit chou” was murdered by my dishwasher, I promised I’d never love an object like that again. The mug was given to me by my Aunt Joann about 15 years earlier. I spent countless days with her in my early teens. My mother has always been an excellent cook, but her style was always impromptu and effortless. My aunt, however, cooked deliberate and planned meals. I would sit in the kitchen with her as she followed Escoffier to the letter (and yes, even in my teens I had heard of him…). She served sweet butter and put Dijon mustard in her homemade vinaigrettes among other such exotic offerings. But I especially loved her oatmeal. Perhaps it was just the butter that she finished it with but I think it was the white melamine spoon she used to stir it. Years later when I was in my first apartment I bought my own Copco Tasting Spoon as it was called. I’m not sure how much one could taste with this spoon because the business end of it was almost flat. Nonetheless I loved it and cooked with it every day for many years. Eventually the spoon started to discolor and it scorched from poor placement near a flame. I hastily threw it away with the intent of immediately replacing it- only I never found it again. I have since settled for a bamboo spoon, but we are not exclusive. 

    • Rick Casner says:

      What a great note! Thanks, Adriana. And thanks for pointing out how mere things can carry along with them such rich stories. I should have thought of that. Should have but didn’t. Finally, that last sentence of yours just rocks.

  17. Robert Doscher says:

    Have you tried to solder the broken spatula back together? I do feel empathy for you, when you find something uniquely special, even an ordinary object like a spatula, you appreciate their perfection. I guess it’s true what they say, “No two spatulas are built the same.”

    Cheers!

    And do try to solder it back together.

    • Rick Casner says:

      Thank you for your comment Robert and for your suggestion of repairing my spatula. Unfortunately I belong to that great sweaty mass know as the Tool Challanged and just the idea of me holding a soldering iron reduces my wife to fits of giggles and scares the hell out of the dog. I will try some duct tape, though, so thanks!

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