All Those Kitchen Gadgets, but a Sharp Knife Just Might Do

Posted May 9, 2018 4:26 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Berries are hot this year, Scott Goldsmith was saying on a recent rain-flecked Friday, brandishing a bright red plastic, wagon wheel-shaped gizmo called a PushBerry, which aims to hull and slice your strawberries in one go.

Avocados, still hot, he added, gesturing at the Flexicado and the Avoquado — two of the many slicers and pitters for sale in his store, all rendered in acid green plastic (designers of kitchen gadgets seem to go in for biomimicry). As for tenacious kale, this decade’s celebrity green, its grooming aids now include the Looseleaf and the Swiftstrip, otherwise known as kale leaf strippers, the solution to a problem you might not know you had.

Goldsmith, 61, is the third-generation owner of S. Feldman Housewares — a glittering bazaar on Manhattan’s Upper East Side — and an impresario of kitchen gadgetry. His shelves were bursting with esoterica like the billowy yellow silicone Food Pod (a combination steamer and colander that looks like vegetation imagined by the production designers of “Star Trek,” $14.99); the SpreadTHAT titanium butter knife (“It’s pretty cool,” Goldsmith said. “It uses the heat of your hands. I don’t eat much butter, but I don’t discriminate,” $19.95); onion goggles ($19.95); and sequined aprons ($120) that were a big hit last Christmas.

How do you wash the aprons? “I have no idea,” he said.

Goldsmith’s long retail career spans decades of gadgetry — including truffle shavers and cherry pitters, Salad Shooters and spiralizers — and traces a history of ingenuity, optimism and sheer whimsy. If the invention of defoliating devices for cruciferous vegetables causes you to think the makers of kitchen gadgets have finally and collectively lost their minds, Goldsmith will remind you that his store has been in business since 1929.

“Between you and me,” he said, “most of these things you can do with a knife.”

To an industrial designer, the universe of possible kitchen tools is infinite. Very few objects would not benefit from a good rethinking, said Tucker Viemeister, a founder of Smart Design, among other companies, who has reimagined items as complex as a toaster, and as simple as a potato peeler.

In 1990, when Smart Design’s Oxo Good Grip peeler hit the market, with its fat, comfy rubber handle and fixed blade, it was a kind of revolution. “On the one hand, designers are really optimistic because they think they can make things better,” he said. “On the other hand, we think everything is wrong or broken.”

In “Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat” (2012), Bee Wilson, the English food writer, explored how technology, social mores and food fashions have long collided to create a pageantry of gizmos.

New technologies rendered entire categories obsolete; when stoves replaced the open hearth, the hasteners, spits, spit jacks and spit dogs that attended them vanished. Technology has altered the meal itself. After the Cuisinart, we were swimming in purées, a situation Wilson said had contributed to the robust artisanal fare of today, prized because “someone’s hand had been tired out making it.”

As she wrote, “the birth of a new gadget often gives rise to zealous overuse, until the novelty wears off."

She continued, “To the woman who has just acquired an electric blender, the whole world looks like soup.”

In terms of pure function, Wilson said recently, “very few new gadgets are any improvement on a sharp knife, a good source of heat and a dexterous pair of hands.”

“But they reflect our obsessions and wants at any given time,” she added. “The Victorians had slaw cutters, which most of us today manage without, because shredded cabbage is not such a thing. The person who owns a kale stripper is confirming to themselves that kale is a big part of his or her life.”

A decade ago, “half the items for sale in cookware shops seemed to be cupcake-related,” she said.

“But now we have moved on. Veganism seems to be where much of our cooking desire has moved, hence the incredible success of the spiralizer. When they started appearing a couple of years ago, I felt that spiralizers were destined for immediate obsolescence, but I was completely wrong. Maybe it’s because of low-carb diets or maybe it’s the rise of #plantbased on Instagram, but it turns out that the ability to turn a beet or zucchini into something resembling telephone wire speaks to more people than I ever knew.”

Christopher Kimball, the determinedly skeptical cooking program host and co-founder of two food networks based in Boston, America’s Test Kitchen and Milk Street, identified three categories of kitchen gadgets: Completely Idiotic Useless Objects, Things That Are Not Worth the Storage Space, and Things That Seem Practical But You Could Actually Do Better With a Knife.

“A well-designed tool is immensely valuable,” Kimball said. “But for the specialty items you’re only going to use once a month, how much more work is it not to use it?”

Yet Kimball is not immune to the siren songs of some gizmos. A few years ago, at the International Home and Housewares Show, the food world’s annual gadgetfest held each March in Chicago, Kimball found himself unexpectedly moved by the BeepEgg, an adorable egg-shaped timer you boil with your eggs. When they have reached the desired degree of doneness — soft, hard or in between — BeepEgg plays a tune (like “Killing Me Softly” for soft boiled).

Kimball also acknowledged having bought every iteration of egg poacher over the years, even though, as he said, “at the end of the day, it actually isn’t that hard to cook an egg.”

In 2016, the last year for which sales figures are available, kitchen tools and accessories represented more than 13 percent of the total housewares pie, which was $87.1 billion, according to the International Housewares Association State of the Industry Report, a 6 percent increase over 2015. Howard Chiu, an engineer who worked in robotics and aerospace, quit his day job 2 1/2 years ago when his invention was a finalist for the Chicago show’s innovation award.

Chiu is the man behind the SpreadTHAT, an idea that was inspired by watching his children flay their toast while trying to spread cold butter.

Borrowing from his background, he took conducting tubes and coated them with titanium to make a device you could warm with the heat of your hands. SpreadTHAT sold well enough its first year that Chiu has built a brand around its principles (with products like a gravy warmer, HeatTHAT; an ice cream scooper, ScoopTHAT; a meat thawer, ThawTHAT; and so forth).

Ten years ago, Kraigh and Anna Stewart were designing in the furniture industry when they had their “aha” moment. Anna Stewart was in the middle of making her grandmother’s recipe for stuffed chicken breasts but didn’t have any string or toothpicks. She wondered, Why isn’t there something reusable you can tie food up with? “Silicone had been around for ages,” Kraigh Stewart said, “but we were the first to use it inside a pan.” They designed their Food Loops (packets of silicone trussing string) in psychedelic hues — “fuchsenta” is what they called their first iteration in hot pink — so you would see them, and not toss them into the trash.

“We sold half a million that first year,” Kraigh Stewart said. Like Chiu, the Stewarts quit their jobs and started a company, Fusionbrands, from that first product. The very particular looking Food Pod at Feldman’s is their handiwork (inspired by sea urchins, Kraigh Stewart said) as is the EggXactPeel, a slim yellow plastic shell cracker and peeler that was a finalist for an innovation award at this year’s housewares show.

Amanda Hesser, the food writer and co-founder and chief executive of Food52, the kitchen and home website, is continually evaluating products like these as her company develops its own for sale. She is an expert on obsolescence, a gimlet-eyed judge of what might have legs. But even Hesser has a misfit drawer in her kitchen, a mini-museum of the gadgetry of yore. Her particular affliction is melon ballers, including one model with a pea-size scoop (tantalizing for “The Borrowers,” perhaps, but otherwise useless). She also has an egg topper, which slices off the caps of eggs with Gallic precision, a butter curler and a shrimp deveiner.

Despite a soft spot for such arcana, Hesser is not tempted by certain new trends.

“Once you go down the road of having a kale leaf stripper,” she said, “where do you draw the line? This is something we talk a lot about in our reviews. With kitchen manufacturers, there is this tendency to get so detailed and so tailored with their products, everyone would need 5,000-square-foot kitchens. Not to mention you’re missing out on the pleasure of ripping kale off its stem. You’re letting the tool have all the fun.” Be wary of the rush to judgment, said Cheryl Mendelson, the essayist and novelist. “One person’s useless gadget often turns out to be the meaning of another’s life, and my pastry blender was pressed on me with fervent affection by someone who couldn’t live without it. I gave it up after one try.” Mendelson is the author of “Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House,” a passionate guide for the turn of the millennium that was a publishing sensation — all 896 pages — when it landed in 1999.

The book was notable for its exhaustive rigor — Mendelson, who is also a lawyer, teaches philosophy at Barnard College — but it also showcased her abiding love of cooking. As it happened, she had purged her drawers recently, and some curious items remained: the aforementioned pastry blender, a cherry pitter, two garlic presses, a toast rack and a pasta noodle slicer.

Mendelson said she had once imagined herself as the sort of person who deployed a toast rack at her family breakfast table and made her own pasta. It was these fantasies — these ideas of selfhood — that stayed their execution, she said.

All of which reminded Mendelson of a William James joke. Apparently there are two.

“This is the funny one,” she said. “James liked to say that if a philosophical theory was useless, if it didn’t do any work in the philosophical sense, it brought to mind the story of the old Irishman who was being carried to a funeral in a broken sedan chair. Because the chair had no floor, the old man had to run along inside it. ‘Faith,’ the man says, ‘if it weren’t for the honor of the thing, I might as well walk.'”

There is honor in a pasta slicer, Mendelson added, and so attention must be paid.