Devon May 6, 2005 As I came out of my office this morning to
walk around the corner to the house for a spot of lunch (the two buildings
are conveniently adjacent), I heard the insistent grind of the knife
sharpener. Every four weeks, this itinerant business, called 'The Happy
Edge' comes to our town, parks up just around the corner from us beside
Topsham quayside, opens the tailgate of the small van, and sets to work.
The business is aptly named: Ian, the knifesharpener, is a seemingly
always cheerful fellow and he clearly enjoys his work. All the restaurateurs
make their way here (or else he goes and fetches their knives, carrying
them carefully on a tray) and he settles in for a good few hours, grinding
and sharpening knives, cleavers, food processor blades, scissors. As
he grinds, the sparks fly off the fast-spinning, coarse-stone wheel
and knives blunted from honest use are restored to perfect sharpness
do knives need sharpening? The chefs have them done every four weeks,
Ian tells me. For home use, maybe every three to six months is enough,
he added. I probably go to him far less frequently than that, using
a domestic knife sharpener in between times. But it's true: at some
point knives simply don't respond to such home remedies and there is
no other option but to have them professionally reground and sharpened.
And why not?
There is something hugely satisfying in seeing the carbon steel blade
of a knife gradually alter in form and shape, its ground-down wear marking
the years of use in the preparation of countless meals enjoyed. And
indeed, for just a pound a knife, the pleasure of having a rackful of
professionally sharp knives at hand is immense! Notoriously tough-skinned
tomatoes can be cut into the finest dice; herbs and leafy vegetables
are transformed into a chiffonade in an effortless jiff; meat slices
like butter: we julienne to our hearts' content.
just a question of efficiency and ease of effort, either, of simply
having the right tool for the job. Sharpness is a happy state of mind.
It indicates that we are on the ball, quick-witted, on top of things.
"He's really sharp," we say, about someone who is nobody's
fool. The striker who never misses a chance in front of goal is said
to be "razor sharp". Being "on the knife edge",
on the other hand, is a dangerous and exhilarating equilibrium wherein
you could fall either way to your doom should you stray off the straight
and narrow, the precarious knife edge of existence. Like a knife, we
whet our appetite, sharpening it in the happy anticipation of eating
something inexpressibly delicious.
become an extension of ourselves. Certainly for your average garden-variety
hoodlum, choice of knife may say alot about who you are: Size undoubtedly
matters! But even for the rest of us, we all have our favourite, the
knife that we - and we alone - always reach for and feel most intuitively
comfortable with. Kim prefers a lovely stainless steel fish filleting
knife for most all general use: it is the knife she always uses. For
me, though, the blade is too flexible, not solid enough. I rarely if
ever use it. I wonder, is this because Kim is by nature at once delicately
fine as well as flexibly accommodating? Nello once gave me his favourite
knife, a Victorinox paring knife that is as unbending and firm as Kim's
is bendy. Nello's is excellent when it has a sharp edge, but being stiff
and made from much thicker metal, it seems to lose its sharpness more
quickly than others. Nonetheless I love it all the same, not least for
the memories: or is it just because I'm dull?
grandmother once told me it is bad luck to give someone a knife. Once
she gave her daughter-in-law a knife and, said Halmoni, she - the daughter-in-law
- forever turned against her. On another occasion, Halmoni gave a friend
a knife and afterwards she never felt the same towards the friend. After
we had spent some months working together with Halmoni preparing our
book "Flavours of Korea with stories and recipes from a Korean
grandmother's kitchen", she wanted to give me her favourite knife,
a touching and thoughtful present from one not naturally given over
to such gestures. "First," she demanded, "You pay me
one dollar." Perplexed, I handed over the bill. "There,"
she sighed with relief, "I sold you my knife. Now there will be
no bad blood between us."
is still the knife I use - I reach for - just about every day of my
life. I cut, I chop: therefore I am. And now, thanks to Ian and the
Happy Edge, that favourite blade, forever linked to my past, to my very
identity, is once again restored to perfect sharpness.