“Have you ever written about food technology?” someone asked me. “Like you wrote about how people write, and about phones—how about food?”
“Farming? Cooking? Packaging?” I asked. He said what he had been thinking about was food preparation technology, especially the way food is prepared in homes and restaurants and schools; but those other aspects would be interesting to look at too.
“It has changed a lot, hasn’t it!” He said. Well, it has, and it hasn’t.
Wa-a-ay back when I was a small child, there was quite a lot of difference between cooking technology in remote rural homes and that town and city homes. (You’re probably thinking about how hard it was for women to cook while wearing those hoop skirts. I do not have a clear recollection of that, though.)
Before a gas well was brought into production on our farm and we had natural gas for our own use, my family cooked and heated with wood. That was very labor intensive. My mother knew about wood and coal cook stoves and heating, from her childhood, and she could regulate the wood range for perfect stovetop and oven results.
When I was a toddler the Aladdin lamps gave way to electric lights, and there was power for the first Surge milker, but we weren’t wired for appliances. No mixers or irons, certainly no electric range, no refrigerator. Some of the garden bounty and meat from the farm went to the frozen food locker in town; the rest was canned, mostly “hot packed” in a large canner.
Mother chopped, shredded, grated, mixed, beat, whipped, kneaded by hand. She had a large egg beater and a small one. Her blender was a pastry blender, curved blades on a handle. She had an array of wooden spoons for mixing everything from meat loaf to dough to batter to pudding. Meat was ground in a zinc-coated gadget clamped to a table, with Mother turning a crank. With a change of blades she ground onions, or peppers, or bread, or veggies for relish.
High-line electric was tantalizingly close—three-quarters of a mile down the road. When finally Penelec ran it all the way to our place, there had already been one revolution: our generator had been converted to natural gas, and we had a floor furnace and several space heaters, and a Kalamazoo combination range. And now Dad rewired the house and barn for “regular electricity,” and my parents got a Crosley Shelvador refrigerator.
Mother was cooking with gas, but she was delighted with the Dormeyer mixer. Years later she got an Osterizer blender, and it was so handy she got each daughter, by then cooking for her own household, a blender.
My blenders have included two Osterizers, a Waring and a Cuisinart. I have had two stand-alone food processors and one that attaches to the General.
Ah, the General! It is my mighty stand mixer, still chugging after 25 years, give or take.
It says “General Slicing” on the prow. It’s a “pro-sumer” model from a company that makes food service equipment. Like most heavy-duty stand mixers it has several beaters—a K beater (an open spade with a K shape inside), a dough hook and a whisk.
Unlike the two Sunbeam stand Mixmasters I have had, the General can’t be taken off its stand for use at the stove or in a pot full of potatoes. But also unlike those, it can knead a two- or three-loaf batch of bread without stalling. In fact, it tells me when the dough is kneaded: when the dough cleans the sides of the bowl and clings to the hook in one big mass.
The General makes whipped cream in a minute, with the whisk, and beats egg whites with ease. Most mixers can. But not many can make butter.
I put heavy cream into the stainless steel bowl (the plastic ones don’t work nearly so well for whipped cream, butter or egg whites), insert the K beater, put on a spatter shield (one didn’t come with, so I improvise shields from large styro plates), turn the control all the way past 8 to MAX. About five minutes later I stop the mixer and scrape the fluff down from the sides of the bowl, then turn the mixer back on for about five more minutes. A change in the sound tells me I have butter and buttermilk. A KitchenAid or other full-size stand mixer can perform similar feats
I love my microwave ovens. One is a combination microwave-convection, branded Montgomery Ward, so you know I have had it a long time. It works very well as a dehydrator, thanks to the little screen shelves Leo Smithmyer found for me. There’s nothing better for making custard.
No electric appliance has quite replaced the Foley mill, a manual juice and pulp extractor of ingenious design. Mother had two, I believe—much like one I recently finished wearing out. A Foley will process raw or cooked tomatoes or apples, leaving behind only skin and seeds, like nothing else I have seen. It’s powered by elbow grease.
What’s your favorite item of food technology? Tell us here.