Pot on the Fire

Further Confessions of a Renegade Cook

John Thorne with Matt Lewis Thorne

North Point Press

Pot on the Fire
EDUCATION OF A COOK
 
 
MY KNIFE, MY POT
 
 
I fell into cooking as many do: by accident, by necessity. I was nineteen, a college dropout, living alone in a dirt-cheap fifth-floor walk-up apartment on New York's Lower East Side. I had no experience, no kitchen equipment, no money, but none of that mattered, because I had no palate then, either. Everything I made tasted good to me, because everything I made was an adventure. At that time, frozen corn and frozen peas were five boxes to the dollar; a pound of hamburger was even less. So, until I discovered rice, a weekday meal was simply a box of the one cooked with a fifth of a pound of the other, and I ate it feeling amazed at what a clever fellow I was.
However, even if I didn't know what to think about what I ate, I had definite opinions about the kitchen equipment I cooked it with. Most of my tiny collection had been bought at a store on East Fourteenth Street. It was different from other junk stores only in that everything it sold was brand new--instant junk. My single kitchen knife was far from sharp, but, even worse, it felt dull, as if it had been made to look like a knife rather than to be one. It was little better than a toy--and so were the cheap pans that warped at once if put empty on the flame and scorched anything, even soup, if you weren't infinitely careful.
This upset me. I had an adolescent's volatile sensitivity to anything that threatened my amour-propre. Aspiring to become a novelist, I knew I needed a decent, solid typewriter, and I had sacrificed everything to get one. Then, when it was stolen from my apartment a week later, I found a way to buy another, and discovered that sacrifice could pulleven more out of me than I knew I had to give. Now I yearned almost as much for two things more: one good knife and one good pot.
This was in the early 1960s, and at that time there was a cook's store on the Avenue of the Americas near Twenty-first Street called Bazar Français. I had come across it on one of my city rambles, and I could tell it was the right sort of place as soon as I came through the doorway. The store itself was austere and slightly scary; the other customers and the equipment they were examining looked serious and professional. This was to kitchen stores what the Gotham Book Mart was to, say, Doubleday's; when you came in you felt less welcomed than appraised.
At the Gotham, at least I could afford to buy a book, however unworthy I might be to own it. Here, I faced complete humiliation. The smallest tin-lined copper pot cost more than I made in a week, working as I then did in the mail room of a steamship line. The kitchen utensils--the spatulas, ladles, skimmers--were made for pots whose dimensions seemed larger than life. I couldn't have put one in any pot I owned without causing that pot to tumble off the stove.
Then I came to the knives. Of course, there were many of these that were also beyond the timid reach of my wallet. But this didn't matter. Almost at once I saw a knife that I both intensely desired and could easily afford. Although there was no mark on the blade or handle that said so, the store claimed it was made in France. If it was, it was certainly not at the top of the manufacturer's line. No knife could have been more utilitarian; it had a blade and a handle, and that was it. I don't remember exactly what it cost, but I know that the price was under ten dollars.
This knife, three decades and more later, sits beside me on the desk as I write. It is made of carbon steel, with a full tang--the metal extending the entire length of the knife, with the two halves of the wooden handle clamped to it with brass rivets. Neither in shape, size, nor hauteur would it ever be confused with a chef's knife: it makes no statement whatsoever about the taste or expertise of the person who uses it. It is simply a tool, and all it says is "I cut."
That, it proved, was enough. The synonyms for cut in my thesaurus almost all smack of the rough and violent--"gash," "pierce," "slash," "cleave," "sever," "rip," "lacerate"--but with this knife the experience became eerily sensuous. The blade slid through a piece of meat almost as if it were cutting butter, and the slithery ease of it had a giddy edginessto it, since with one slip it would as easily slide into me. No matter how many times you've done it before, picking up a razor-sharp knife puts the nerves on alert, and practice teaches you to extend them to the blade's tip, so that you feel rather than cut your way around gristle and bone.
In other words, that knife brought the act of cooking to life. I don't doubt that a skilled cook can prepare good meals with the crummiest of kitchenware, because I have done this myself. But after the challenge has been met, there is no real pleasure in doing so. Cheap stuff is never neutral; it constantly drags at your self-respect by demeaning the job at hand. And only if you start a life of cooking knowing that dead weight can you truly appreciate the feeling of release, even joy, when you first lay hands on such a tool.
 
 
The road to my first good pot turned out to be a much longer one. To begin with, pots are far more complicated than knives. Even tucked away in a cupboard, their presence looms in the kitchen the way a knife's never does. Because, while a knife's job is soon over, a pot's work is almost never done. In the end, a knife, however expensive, is just an implement, while a pot is the kitchen itself made small. After all, it is inside the pot that the actual cooking takes place.
Consequently, it is the pot--really, the set of pots--that is the kitchen's pride. The more self-aware the cook, the more those pots take center stage, not hidden in kitchen cabinets but proudly hung from open racks--sturdy, gleaming, clean. And, let's admit it, expensive. Acquired as wedding presents, they are often less participants in the cook's first fumbling efforts than silent, slightly intimidating witnesses. Spouses are easy to please; the cook's real task is to live up to the set of All-Clad or Calphalon.
As a teenager, one of my household chores was to wash the dinner dishes, a task that always culminated in the ritual cleaning of the pans. My mother's pride and joy was a set of stainless-steel, copper-bottomed cookware, and there was no escaping the kitchen sink until these sparkled--a process that began with steel wool, went on to copper polish, and ended with the nervous rush to get each pot dry and put away before its bottom was stained with a single water spot.
I wanted no such bullying presence in my free-and-easy bachelor'skitchen. In fact, the first pan I acquired, a small cast-iron frying pan, was in appearance and temperament the very antithesis of house proud. It entered my apartment greasy inside and rust-stained without, looking as surly as a junkyard dog. I cleaned it up a bit and taught it how to do a few basic tricks--the skillet equivalents to "sit up" and "beg"--and tried to give it as few chances as I could to bite me.
Still, we got along all right. I found that I felt at ease with the lesser breeds of cookware: larger, equally grumpy cast-iron skillets, a cheap aluminum pasta pot, an unmatching assortment of saucepans made of thin steel and coated with cream-colored or blue-speckled enamel--stuff picked up here and there at yard sales or on the back shelves of hardware stores. Such pots had always been around when I was growing up--identical versions could have been found in my grandmother's kitchen--and while they may not have been all that great to cook with, their limitations were a soothing match to my own.
This situation might never have changed had I not, in my forties, finally gotten married. At this point in our lives, the problem was not one of quickly acquiring a batterie de cuisine but of merging two very different ones. Since my wife, Matt, owned pots and pans of a much higher quality, I was quite content to get rid of almost all of mine. In return, I was introduced to what would become, for me, the pot: a solid, stainless-steel four-quart Italian-made saucepot with a thick aluminum plate welded to its base.
As with the knife, it was love at first sight, perhaps because the pot's serious cookware look was tempered by a pair of jug ears--two oversized steel handles--that gave it a gawky sweetness. More than that, though, its particular proportions drew me to it. I just loved to feed that pot. Our ideal cooking vessel must surely be shaped in some mysterious way to fit our appetite, and this one was a perfect measure to mine.
Like the knife, it asserted a simple, unintimidating confidence that somehow got transferred to me. By tolerating my capricious kitchen ways--refusing, say, to let a risotto scorch merely because my attention had lapsed at a crucial moment or to boil a cut of beef into shoe leather because I forgot to check how the temperature was holding--it got me to tolerate them more myself and thus to stop letting them get in my way.
It was also a delight to use. The heavy bottom not only made heat spots a thing of the past, it absorbed and then radiated heat in a waythat made tasks like searing meat or browning onions seem rewarding rather than tedious, especially since the results were so compellingly delicious. This pot and I had such rapport that after I had used it a few times, I felt I would never want to cook with anything else. All of a sudden, Matt and I found ourselves eating chowder or cioppino, a variety of curries, butterbean soup, or hoppin' John almost every night--dishes that seemed conceived for no other purpose than for me to take that pot through its paces. Finally, I had my pot as well as my knife. My kitchen was complete.
 
 
Cooks, at least serious cooks, can be roughly divided into two major groups: pot cooks and knife cooks. Of course, each sort uses both implements; it is a matter of which serves as the lodestone of their kitchen--the piece of cookware that, in case of a fire, they would run to rescue first.
There is no doubt that I am a knife cook. While I may have always yearned for the right pot, I actually needed the right knife to find myself as a cook. Even today, if I reached under the counter and found my favorite pot missing, I would groan, yes, but I would have no trouble using another one. Take away my knife, however, and all my kitchen skills would go flitting out the window.
The existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once posed a gnomic query that went something like this: "Pierre has a knife. Every year he replaces the blade; every other year he replaces the handle. What, then, is Pierre's knife?" My own experience has given me the answer to this puzzle: my knife is what I reach for when I need to do some cutting. Because, at this point, I am no longer reaching for a thing but reconnecting to a relationship--a relationship that remains more or less the same even if the knife itself has not.
Some time ago I retired that original utility knife. The same metal that could be honed sharp enough to shave with also stained the moment it touched a tomato, rusted if not dried immediately after washing, and gave any onion it sliced the faint taste of metal. When knives made of a new high-carbon stainless steel appeared on the market, with blades that could be kept sharp by regular honing and that were far less vulnerable to everyday use, I searched one out that also felt right--al--though it looked nothing like the one it was replacing--and retired the older knife to the kitchen drawer. John's knife is different now, but it is also the same: a sturdy, honest worker in whose company I feel entirely at ease.
When Matt introduced her collection of pots into my life, she also brought a handsome set of fully forged German-made knives. I was ecstatic; I had always longed to have such a set of blades. But it was too late. To my complete surprise, I simply never reached for one and, years later, still have not. A knife, it turned out, was a commitment as much as a possession, a true partner. That utility knife isn't the only knife I use, but it is without question the source of my confidence as a cook. If I have it with me, I can make myself at home in any kitchen; without it, I feel like a stranger in my own.
However, to say that I am a knife cook is to tell only part of the story. The truth is, I had a lot of growing up to do before I understood what a good pot was all about. It is about cooking, to be sure, but it is also about patience, about resolving things through mediation, about taking the time to get something just right. The better a pot, the less it can be hurried.
Knives, on the other hand, are about cutting the Gordian knot. They offer immediate gratification, the opportunity to make decisions first and live with the consequences later. The sharper the knife, the quicker that choice is made--almost quicker than thought itself.
Push the pot in the direction of the knife and you get the skillet, cooking over high heat, with all the attendant risk and showy results. Push the knife toward the pot, on the other hand, and you get the spatula, a tool whose edge cleaves without cutting, gentles rather than rips things apart.
Each cook finds the tools that pull their temperament and their kitchen work into some sort of synchrony. I have always been an anxious and impatient person, and this was especially so when I was young. That sharp carbon-steel knife allowed me to grasp anxiety by the handle and point it away from me. I tended to agonize over decisions; here was something that made them for me, lickety-split. To pick up a carrot and cut it into bite-sized chunks was to confront a series of choices, however inconsequential, and resolve them immediately, chop, chop, chop.
Of course, being young, I didn't realize that grabbing anxiety by itshandle is like getting a tiger by the tail--the sense of relief is only momentary. There is an old saw that the most dangerous knife in the kitchen is the dull one, and while that has some truth to it, it is not really true. In most kitchens, almost all the knives are dull, and for good reason--a sharp knife can get you into trouble very quickly. I did get into trouble, all the time. But the worst cuts I gave myself--two scars I still bear after fifteen years--came from sharpening my knife, an act that required being careful of my knife and myself at the same time. I was never all that good at either task: the two together were an open invitation to catastrophe.
Some part of me must have known this almost from the start. An uncle of mine had once gone into a butcher's shop and fallen in love with a saberlike knife the butcher was using to dismember a carcass. My uncle bought it out of his hand. Years later, when I found it buried away in my grandparents' cellar, I begged and pleaded until he gave it to me. However, while I have carried it proudly from one kitchen to the next ever since, it has always remained carefully wrapped up and stored away. Here, for once, I recognized the tiger right away.
With my own knife, things were never so clear. Even so, my protective instincts eventually edged their way in. When I replaced that knife with the one made of high-carbon stainless steel, I managed not to notice that, while I could get this new knife sharp, I could never get it fiercely sharp. And, as I became accustomed to wielding a less dangerous blade, I began to fall into the tempo set by the new pot. Happiness for me is now somewhere between the two: perhaps one day I'll wake up and grasp the fact that, really, what I am is a skillet-and-spatula cook.
Even so, sharp knives continue to thrill me. Recently, I happened upon my first knife, which, over the years, had worked its way to the back of the knife drawer. Picking it up, I felt as if I were pressing the hand of a long lost friend. How well it fit into my palm. How solid it was. How naturally my fingers closed around its handle. I brought it into the workroom, clamped it into a vise, and scrubbed the metal with a wire brush until the rust was gone and the blade glistened in that nacreous way peculiar to carbon steel. Then I took out the sharpening stone and stroked back the edge that, tested too firmly, will slice the thumb.
As I stood there, turning the blade to catch the sunlight, I found myselfswept back to the moment at the Bazar Français when I first laid eyes on it and felt that flash of intense and covetous desire. Despite all I had learned about myself since, I was still glad that this hot-wired adolescent was about to purchase that knife--and that, many years later, I would inherit it from him. I will be honored to have it ... even if I'm pretty certain that these days I won't find much occasion to put it to use.
Copyright © 2000 by John Thorne