Seasons by the Sea: Gotta Get a Gadget

Twist’n Sprout and Stalkchop, while cleverly named, are not necessary for coring Brussels sprouts or prepping cauliflower, tasks that can be easily performed with a utility knife. Laura Donnelly

It’s easy to write about essential kitchen tools, but it’s more fun to talk about the nonessential, the unnecessary, the frivolous, and ridiculous. Did you know there are tools and gadgets made for Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, herb preservation, making Southern sweet tea, and so on? In Japan, these are known as “fuyona obujekuto,” but the Japanese are as guilty as, say, Hammacher Schlemmer when it comes to absurd gadgets.

I shudder to think of the poor, novice cook who takes a trip to one of the better-known high-end cookware stores with the greatest intention of learning how to cook. No disrespect, Williams-Sonoma, I love you, especially when your stuff is on sale! But this is the kind of place where you will see Twist’n Sprout, the tool that preps those pesky little green cruciferous balls. Twist’n Sprout suggests you “twist to trim and core” each individual sprout. Brussels sprouts don’t need coring; they just need scoring.

And for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why the cauliflower Stalkchop is necessary. It claims to “remove florets in seconds.” Well, I think the average cook can prep a whole head of cauliflower in about one or two minutes.

Among the other gadgets I found was a hothouse tomato slicer. It’s wise that this tool’s box specifies “hothouse” because these winter tomatoes can indeed be quite firm, but nothing that a good serrated knife can’t handle.

There are also iPad stands, herb shears, garlic slicers, herb savers, herb mills, ceramic pie weights, and one of my favorites, a stainless steel blob in the shape of a bar of soap that is meant to remove garlic and onion odors from your hands. My thoughtful son bought this for me years ago, and I gushed over how wonderful it was. But the fact of the matter is, any stainless steel surface will do the same. Regarding the ceramic pie weights, if you want to prebake a pie crust, all you have to do is get a bunch of dried beans or rice and lay them on top of tin foil before you blind bake your crust. When you’re done, just keep them in a labeled jar for future use. I just saved you $13.50. You’re welcome.

There is a tool made specifically for toasting taco shells. Really? The Authentic Southern Sweet Tea Brewer costs $49.95. You can’t just brew some damned tea and add sugar yourself? This thing also looks like it would take up a lot of counter space.

The Hammacher Schlemmer catalog has one of my favorite, and yet most disturbing, items ever. For $59.95 you can get two Taste Enhancing Forks. They have little holes into which you place blotter paper upon which you squirt some essence of smoke or wasabi or strawberry or steak, and it gives you the impression you are tasting that smell. Suggested combinations are “chocolate odor” as you take a bite of strawberry. Or “smoke” as you dig into that juicy ribeye. This just makes me sad.

My father loved kitchen gadgets. He frequently used his egg cuber, an $11.99 plastic box that transforms one ovoid hard-boiled egg into a rectangle. Fun. He also encouraged us kids to buy our mother a Veg-O-Matic, one of the Popeil family’s inventions, along with the Pocket Fisherman. “As seen on TV!” “It slices, it dices!” It didn’t. It does not. Our mother feigned gratitude and then spent hours with this blunt-bladed contraption, trying to slice and dice minuscule amounts of vegetables to feed our family of five. It eventually disappeared from the kitchen, to be replaced by that most ancient and efficient of tools, a thing called a “knife.”

Even though the Japanese have the aforementioned name fuyona obujekuto for unnecessary objects, they are masters at whimsy and humor and a wee bit of darkness when it comes to their kitchen inventions. What child wouldn’t love a panda bear imprint on their toast? Tea drinkers can have a Deep Tea Diver to steep their cup of leaves. But they also have a spoon rest that resembles a pool of blood, and a “Boogie Egg Separator,” a ceramic face from which the egg whites drip out of — you guessed it — the nostrils.

In my vast amount of research, did I find any frivolous equipment that just might be necessary, or at the very least, fun to have? Yes. For $399.99 you can get a refrigerator that looks exactly like a Marshall amplifier. Perfect for the Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix wannabe in your life.

There was an article in Men’s Health magazine called “Common Kitchen Tools You Don’t Need,” and I have to say, I disagree with most of them, including small cutting board, toaster, citrus reamer, spaghetti server, and hand-me-down dishes. Small cutting boards are perfect for parties; you put them on the bar with a bowl of lemons and limes. Toaster? Everyone needs a toaster! They said a citrus reamer is unnecessary because all you need to do is stick a fork in a halved lemon or lime. Wrong. A reamer is so much more efficient and safe, I use mine almost every day. Same for spaghetti server: This pronged spoon is the best for tossing and serving pasta. 

Regarding hand-me-down dishes, they said “just go out and buy some white, no-frills dishes.” That’s fine for your unsentimental, single bachelors, but someday you might have a girlfriend or wife or other significant other and family and want to have a soigné dinner party. Trust me, those pretty family heirlooms will come in handy.

There are some fairly new kitchen tools and gadgets that make you wonder “how did we get along without these for so long?” The microplane is a good example. Originally used as a woodworking rasp, this cheap device is perfect for grating anything and everything from garlic to nutmeg to Parmesan cheese. There are several stories regarding its discovery as a kitchen grater; one is that a housewife in Canada was making her favorite Armenian orange cake and got sick of grating zest on a box grater. She reached for her husband’s woodworking tool and voila! 

Another recently created and popular tool is the “spiralizer.” It looks gimmicky, but it is a genius device for quickly and adorably shredding zucchini, potatoes, beets, and more into squiggly shreds for salads or cooking.

Perhaps one person’s favorite kitchen tool is another’s fuyona obujekuto. My advice? Stick to the basics, unless it’s your child who presents you with the latest newfangled mango corer. In that case, you will use it and you will enjoy it, for many months, until they forget, and then you can throw it away.