Pencils, Books...and Kitchen Knives

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If you moved back to campus this fall, or sent your undergrad off to school, you probably dedicated some serious time to shopping and packing. Parents and students arrive at college with full cars. They pack a pretty common inventory: halogen lamps, butterfly chairs, and comforters, all crammed into the back seat over boxes of clothing and plastic contraptions that contain everything from books to bathroom supplies.

I want to add another item to the back-to-school checklist: good cooking knives. Good knives are indispensable, and yet many of us suffer, unwittingly, having never used a great knife.

A dashing man recently said to me, "Cooking? I like it. It's the chopping I despise."

Forget rising incomes, longer workweeks, and a wider variety of restaurants. If we just had good knives, we'd go home to cook.

I was confused--why would he loathe chopping? Sure, a pile of onions can be a pain. But the utter bliss of transformation, the smooth movement of a knife through a vegetable or fruit? How could it be odious?

And then I understood. I tried the knives in his kitchen. Pain and misery ensued. My elbow still protests. Chopping, which I consider a meditative act, one I love, became a type of flagellation. The evening drove me to a new conclusion: bad knives have driven my generation out of the kitchen. Forget rising incomes, longer workweeks, and a wider variety of restaurants. If we just had good knives, we'd go home to cook.

So, if you'd like to save your child--or your honey--some trouble, buy them nice knives. In my 20s, I had entire sets of kitchen knives. Now, at a more restrained 30, I've discovered you only need three knives: an 8-inch chef's knife for chopping; a 3- to 4-inch paring knife for coring tomatoes and slicing apples, and a long serrated knife for breads. Admittedly, I've always made sure to have two good chef's knives on hand. When friends crowd into my kitchen to cook, I can hand one a chopping knife, and the work is done in double-time.

When you purchase knives, you can get into serious debates of Japanese or German construction. But for most starter kitchens, I'd say fret not about origins and just look for knives with a relatively high carbon-steel content. Stainless-steel knives may tempt you, but steer clear. They are hard to sharpen. Good knives have some heft, though they need not be heavy. To care for them, wash and dry them after each use. Keep them out of the sink, and don't throw them in the dishwasher. Have a sharpening steel and whetstone on hand, too, to keep those blades sharp.

Okay, one last word on knives: put them on the back-to-school list and pack them right into the car. They are an equally good graduation gift. And just as nice at the holidays.

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Melina Shannon-DiPietro is the director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, which oversees sustainable dining at Yale, manages an organic farm on campus, and runs programs that support academic inquiry related to food and agriculture. More

Melina Shannon-DiPietro is an organic farmer turned executive director. In 2003 she traded in her stirrup hoe for a laptop and joined Yale to help found the Sustainable Food Project. For the past seven years, she has worked with colleagues, faculty, and students to create meaningful opportunities for college students in food, agriculture, and sustainability. Her biggest compliment came last year, when a student called her Yale's Dean of Food.
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