Just before I got married, the women of the rural district where I grew up threw me a “kitchen tea.” This meant that everyone did some beautiful baking, we all got together for an afternoon, and then I was bestowed with gifts for my forthcoming wedding. These were women I had grown up with, the mothers of my friends and all the children at school, the women I had seen since I was tiny at community events. I knew them as well as I knew my aunts and cousins, in many cases better. They had taught me to sew, knit, play tennis and coached me at netball. They followed my year in Thailand and my university career.
The gifts they gave were small, intended for the kitchen. Tea towels and can openers, cake tins and spatulas. All sorts of gadgets. Mrs C (Peter’s mother) came up to me with her gift, a simple and inexpensive long- bladed vegetable knife. “(Mali),” she said, “I want to explain why I gave you a knife, because you might think it is a silly gift. A good knife is invaluable to a cook. You can’t underestimate the value of a knife that cuts beautifully, and once you find one, you will hang on to it as long as you can.”
I have been married 25 years and that knife is still with me. It sharpens beautifully, cuts through carrots and pumpkin with ease, and moves from my hands to the dishwasher, rarely making its way to the drawer where it should live. I frequently marvel at how much I like using it, especially when I work in other people’s kitchens, struggling with their always inadequate knives. And from time to time, I think of Mrs C and the thought that she put into that gift.
Mrs C’s knife can’t chop herbs though, or cope with meat, and for years I have sought a suitable knife to cope with that. I bought a meat cleaver in a market in Vietnam for US$2. It is good for chopping things, but isn’t as sharp as I would like it to be. From time to time I’ve bought other knives, which have looked good but never passed the carrot or pork test. I’ve coveted some of the beautiful, expensive, high quality chef’s knives which are kept behind glass, in locked cabinets, at the Knife Shop in Petone or at Moore Wilson’s, the store where all the local chefs buy their equipment. But the choice and price range was overwhelming, and so I never got around to getting a new knife.
Till last weekend, when, at the Home and Garden show at the stadium, I came upon the Victorinox stall. Knives, knives, everywhere. I picked up one that looked the size I wanted, and was the Japanese style. I was surprised how light it was, and how comfortable it felt in my hand.
“You don’t have any carrots for me to test this on,” I said to the stall-holder.
“You don’t need to test it with that knife,” he said confidently. “Look how narrow the blade is. Feel how strong it is. This knife will cut anything. In 20 years, I’ve never had any complaints with this one.”
I looked at him suspiciously. Looked at the price. But looked at the fine, strong blade. Then looked at my husband, who said “buy it.” “But what if it won’t cut carrots?” I said pathetically. Then I looked at the price again. “I guess it is only the price of a meal out at a decent restaurant,” I reasoned, feeling silly for having waited so long. “I’ll take it,” I said, and signalled D to get out his wallet.
I couldn’t wait to get home. The stall-holder had promised me it would cut meat beautifully, and that I could carve meat with it.
I cut up Agria potatoes and threw them in the roasting pan. The knife went through so easily the potatoes felt like butter. I took a carrot, with some trepidation, and sliced through it. Perfectly. An hour later, the vegetables were roasted and the peppered fillet of beef was ready. I took up the knife and started carving. The knife slid through the meat, smoothly, allowing thin beautiful slices.
I love my new knife. I can’t wait to chop things for dinner. I’m finding excuses to put finely diced onion in everything I make. I want to slice, dice, chop and carve endlessly.
I feel a little guilty about neglecting Mrs C’s knife. But it will always be there. Like my marriage, it has lasted. But the new knife will be, I hope, a symbol of the next stage of our relationship, our next slice of life. New, strong, fine, and exciting, cutting edge, and of course, long-lasting.