Five knives

September 20, 2022 Comments Off on Five knives

I remember coming home one day, I was in my late teens, and my mom was gushing about a set of knives that she had bought, made by Cutco. “The girl who was selling them was so wonderful! She’s working her way through college and they are the most wonderful knives!”

I knew immediately that she had bought the knives for two reasons. The girl had a great sales pitch, and the demo table was stocked with very sharp knives, something alien to my mom. I also knew that with a name like “Cutco” the knives were crap, and even if they weren’t, in my mom’s kitchen they soon would be because she’d never sharpened a knife in her life and her lazy husband’s only thoughts about what happened in the kitchen were 1) When’s my dinner ready? and 2) The maid will clean it up.

In those days the people who cleaned my mom’s kitchen were called maids.

In fact, my mom didn’t need a sharp knife. She was a tremendous cook and had more skill in the kitchen, by far, than in her chosen profession. She suffered a lifetime of dull knives, especially where men were concerned. But the lack of a sharp blade meant nothing to her. As predicted by me, the Cutco kitchen knives sank into dull uselessness. At some point she bought a carbon steel Sabatier paring knife and giant meat knife, but they died equally ignoble deaths of dullness, rust, chipped blades and broken points from being used for everything from slicing to sawing through bone to opening cans.

Although I lived in Japan for ten years, my mother-in-law never had a sharp knife and, like my mom, it mattered not. She was an amazing cook. It was only when my ex-wife, on a visit home, went to Kappabashi in Tokyo and came home with a proper carbon steel 180mm santoku that I began to take notice of knives, and that was mostly because she cut herself badly on numerous occasions. Unlike my mom, she sent it out for sharpening once every year or so, and although it too rusted and eventually became permanently dull, her constant remarking about how easy it was to cook with a sharp knife made an impression.

Once our marriage began to fail in earnest and I began making my own food, I turned to her small arsenal of knives. The hand-made knife from Tokyo was hopelessly dull, but she had discovered that for $15 you can buy a stainless steel santoku at the Japanese market that is incredibly sharp, doesn’t rust, holds an edge very well, and quickly sharpens up to its original cutting edge. Somewhere along the way I got the idea to buy a whetstone and once every couple of weeks I’d take out the knives and sharpen them.

The difference that it makes having a sharp knife, particularly when you’re not a born cook, is incalculable. That’s because cooking is a misnomer. What you mainly do in the kitchen is chop, slice, and cut. And having an extremely sharp knife makes those miserable activities totally pleasant, and in my case, very enjoyable.

It’s my opinion that people don’t cook for three reasons: Time, habit, and bad knives. The first two are incurable. Once you’ve stuffed your life with so much trivia that you actually feel busy, despite the fact that we have more leisure time, earlier retirement, more money, and longer lifespans than anyone in the history of the earth, you’ll never make time to cook. The easiest way to understand it is this way: People are lazy, or, #socmed + Domino’s > cooking.

The second obstacle, habit, is mostly incurable. Once you actually like the taste of prepared food you will never acclimate to your own cooking, and even if you acclimate, you’ll never prefer it to, say, a marvelous dinner out. It’s exactly like owning a recliner. Once you have one you’ll never revert to sitting on the ground. Ever.

Remember Blue Apron? It was supposed to revolutionize cooking because they had “identified” that the main problems with home cooking were time + habit. People didn’t have the time to shop (false premise #1) and people simply weren’t accustomed to the great taste of home cooking (false premise #2). Once people began subscribing to Blue Apron, idealistic white couples realized that they didn’t like their own food as much as they liked prepared food. Blue Apron went public, lost a couple billion, and has continued its losing ways, where it has so far lost $50 million in 2022 alone and faces a continually shrinking subscriber base. Far from revolutionizing the way people ate at home, it jacked up the price for home cooking by about 300% and reminded people that they vastly prefer to eat what somebody else made for them, even, or especially, if the person’s name is McDonald.

In case you missed reality, people like prepared food and they are never going back to cooking their own meals. Sure, two or three dinners a week, maybe pour some cereal in the morning, the occasional pancake breakfast on Mother’s Day to relieve her from cooking the food she no longer makes, but you will find a velociraptor in your garden sooner than you’ll find a working couple that prepares breakfast, lunch, and dinner on anything approaching a regular basis.

Me, I cook. My divorce taught me that I was an asshole. I’d spent 32 years with a woman who was an amazing cook and homemaker and I had never bothered to learn anything about preparing my own food. And although we inveterate jerks can never be truly rehabbed, I did learn to make the food that I like, and the food that I like is amazingly easy to prepare and rich in core nutrients like butter.

It’s easy to prepare because as a selfish jerk, the primary beneficiary of my cooking routine is me. It’s easy to prepare because my tastes are simple. It’s easy to prepare because I don’t #socmed, Internet surf, enjoy the televisions, watch the YouTubes, go to the movies, have any friends, drive a car, or look after small children. It’s easy to prepare because I hate restaurants, fast food, junk food, and prepared food. It’s easy because my dad’s mom was a wonderful cook, my mom’s mom was a wonderful cook, my mom was a wonderful cook, and my ex was a wonderful cook.

I had wholesome, home-cooked food implanted early, and I had it reinforced by a conversation I’ll never forget when my friend Hamed Mekki told me that “Man kann nur zu Hause richtig essen.” You can only eat properly at home. It’s one of the truisms of human existence.

The other reason it’s easy to prepare my own food is because I don’t own anything. For the last two years my motto has been “Be ready to leave.” Everything I own that I care about can be packed in less than twenty minutes, stowed on a bicycle, and ridden away with. Everything except my five knives, and as much as I enjoy them, they are utterly dispensable.

Except in the kitchen.

Knives are fetish objects for many people, and Japanese knives enjoy a cult status. Like bicyclists, people collect Japanese kitchen knives, display them ostentatiously, and spend lots of time and lots of money acquiring more knives and keeping them sharp either with whetstones or non-use. Because the old rule my mom didn’t learn with the Cutco knives holds true with your $350 carbon steel nakiri. It’s only as good as it is sharp, and it’s only as sharp as you keep it.

I get the feeling that, like bicyclists who own lots of bikes and ride very little, kitchen knife aficionados don’t cook very much. In addition to statistics that show only 36% of Americans cook something daily, the fact is that the more you focus on equipment and its maintenance, unless you’re a professional, the less likely you are to focus on the activity for which the equipment was purchased.

Even with so many caveats, cooking all my meals is greatly enhanced, I’d even say enabled, by the knives in my kitchen. I have five of them, and even better, I have the time to keep them sharp and clean, and best of all, I get to use at least one of them every single day. The chef’s adage that you do 80% of your cooking with one knife is absolutely true.

Knives that cut brilliantly preserve flavor and enhance it. The Japanese expression “Yoku kiru, oishiku naru” is true: A good blade makes good food. A good knife will drastically reduce the labor involved in food prep and also reduce the chance that you’ll cut yourself by having to use too much force with a dull knife. Of course, the sharper the knife the more badly it will injure if you’ve had too many alcohols or aren’t paying attention.

Here’s my knife family:

  1. Japanese grocery store knife: This cost $15. It’s a santoku style knife, useful for cutting anything. It is stainless steel and holds an edge, requires relatively little sharpening, won’t rust, is well balanced, and if you ruin or damage it you’re only out a few bucks. If you don’t have a crazy sharp knife in your kitchen, get one of these and make your next purchase a Japanese water stone for sharpening. It takes a long time to learn how to sharpen properly, and you don’t want to learn the ropes on a $400 handmade knife.
  2. Large paring knife: Matsubara Blue #2 Petty 150mm: This is an extraordinarily sharp smaller knife, ideal for small, precise cuts and for slicing small items like garlic into tissue. It’s made of carbon steel and is unbelievably sharp. Holds its edge and is quickly brought up to speed with a few passes on the whetstone. But it will rust if you don’t dry it immediately, and the steel will degrade if you leave it wet with anything acidic like lemon. This is a knife for people who scrupulously care for things, or for people who just like having a razor sharp knife for display.
  3. All-purpose large kitchen knife: Sakai Takayuki Ginsako Santoku 180mm: Not as sharp as the paring knife because it’s stainless steel. Unlike the paring knife, you don’t have to be fastidious about keeping it dry and clean, but I do anyway. If I’d known more when I bought it, I would have opted for the carbon steel. But it’s crazy sharp and its large size makes it lethal on any kind of meat. The extra makes thinly sliced carrots easier than thinking.
  4. Medium vegetable knife: Sakai Takayuki Damascus Nakiri 160mm: Like the santoku, this one is also stainless, in retrospect a mistake because I don’t mind cleaning and drying my knives immediately. The shape of the nakiri, with its big squared end, adds weight on the point that makes it the perfect vegetable knife. Even though it doesn’t slice as finely as the paring knife, it can get onion so thin that it’s completely translucent. To cut any better than that you don’t need a better knife, you need better technique. Since vegetables feature prominently in almost everything I eat, this is my go-to knife. It’s also the prettiest. But since I use it all the time, I fear I will soon replace it with one made of carbon steel.
  5. Time trial bike: Moritaka Ishime Kiritsuke 240 mm: I call this my TT bike because I rarely if ever use it and it was bought on a bad whim. It’s huge, it’s carbon steel, and it would be useful if I were in the pineapple carving or watermelon cutting business, or if I needed to store someone in my freezer. The blade is long and heavy and razor sharp, but it’s not very practical. Maybe one day I’ll need to butcher a rhino, but until then this will stay tucked away as “Mr. Bad Purchase.” Unlike the TT bike, though, the technology never goes out of date!

Indirectly, having a couple of great knives and the ability to keep them sharp will keep you fitter and skinnier. You’ll spend more time in the kitchen, eat less, be more picky about what you eat, and enjoy the fruits of your labor exponentially more than when it’s served to you by someone else. You’ll also become an initiate into the true secret of home cooking: The only thing that’s truly hard to make is the thing you don’t want to eat.

‘Cuz you can only eat properly at home.


PS: The best way I’ve found to store my knives is as shown below. It’s cheap, it’s a great way to recycle tattered paperbacks, it won’t dull the blade, and it keeps the steel dry. What’s not to like?

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