Next time you’re in the kitchen, give a look at the tools you use almost daily to prepare a meal. Do some give you a little jolt of pleasure every time you use them? Ones you would have trouble parting with?
Looking at my own kitchen treasures (e.g., classic KitchenAid mixer, antique pepper mill, heavy sheet pans), I wonder what it is that makes these things feel so right? So beloved?
Sentimentality may play a role (use anything long enough and you’re bound to feel sentimental). But I think what’s at play here is the quality of quintessence. Quintessence, as the dictionary defines it, is “the most nearly perfect manifestation of a quality or thing.”
I looked up an old copy of “Quintessence: The quality of having it,” an out-of-print book by Betty Cornfield and Owen Edwards.
Quintessential things, the authors write, “offer more to us than we specifically ask of them and to which we respond more strongly than is easily explained.” They have an “abiding rightness that makes them unimprovable.” They offer as examples Frisbees, M & M’s, the Steinway piano, Zippo lighters, and even Green Giant peas.
What I notice about my own kitchen quintessentials are these common characteristics: They’re built to last. They excel at what they’re supposed to do. Many are old enough to predate made-in-China ubiquity. And they seem to get better with age.
If you’re in a position to buy kitchen basics for yourself or someone else, it makes sense to choose items that are the “perfect manifestation of the thing.” Choose well once, and you won’t have to choose again.
Here are a few of my quintessential kitchen essentials:
Cast Iron Pans
Steak, eggs, fish, bread … not much isn’t optimally cooked in your well-seasoned cast iron pan or pot.
I know many people love their pre-seasoned Lodge, but I like old pans (most of mine are more than 70 years old) with a satiny surface and light enough to make handling a pleasure.
Searching out vintage cast iron is fun. For an excellent overview of what to look for, I recommend a YouTube video called “Identifying Old Cast Iron Pans.”
For pure utility, I use stainless steel bowls. For pure pleasure, I use a collection of Watt yellow ware bowls, circa 1955. My mom gave me the first and largest bowl when I started baking bread in high school. Over the years, I’ve cobbled together a nesting set of seven bowls.
You might have a thing for Pyrex or hand-thrown pottery or modern ceramics. Whatever it is, choose something that resonates.
Several years ago, without any conscious intention, I began collecting hand-carved wooden utensils wherever I traveled. A miniature spoon in South Africa, a chapati roller from India, a Vietnamese rice paddle. Beautiful and practical mementos of cuisines and culture ... no refrigerator magnet or shotglass could ever compete.
Fortunately, you needn’t travel far to find well-made wooden spoons. Walla Walla woodworker Mark Thomas sells spoons, muddlers and more at the Downtown Farmer’s Market.
This season, as you go about your holiday shopping, consider quintessence. It is a clear bell amid the din.