Simple Tools

CREDIT: congerdesign via Pixabay (CC/2.0)

There’s a batch of potato soup simmering on the stove behind me. A few minutes ago I peeled a dozen golden Kennebecs and plopped them in. They’re bubbling happily, and I’ve set down to write.

When I bought the potatoes, I wasn’t thinking about the tools I would need to prepare them. I just found a peeler in the kitchen drawer–zip, zip, zip–and it’s skins in the compost, spuds in the pot.

But what if I didn’t have the peeler? Would the potatoes still be sitting high and dry? Of course not.

My peeler is a Jonas Peeler, a special sort of knife whose blade can swivel to follow the contours of its victim. In the 1950s the Jonas Peeler began displacing the earlier, fixed-bladed peelers that had once themselves pushed out the humble paring knife. The design is more efficient; safer, too. But unless you’re peeling truckloads of potatoes in the back of an industrial kitchen, you probably won’t notice a material difference between it and its predecessors.

Come to think of it, a well-stocked kitchen includes a litany of graters, choppers, slicers, and dicers that are just specialized variations on the common theme. If I didn’t have a potato peeler, an apple corer, or a banana slicer, I could still peel potatoes, core apples, and slice bananas. I would just use a knife. Maybe it takes a few minutes longer, but learning to slice bananas with a knife will transfer to every kitchen (even ones lacking the latest banana-slicing equipment).

Simple tools are like that. They’re around when you need them. They aren’t restricted by specialization. And they tend to be easier to understand and apply to as-yet-unknown situations.

The next time you’re contemplating a specialized tool, ask: does the benefit outweigh the time to learn it? How about the practice foregone in mastering something more general? And would you still be able to work effectively if the tool weren’t there? Sometimes, the answer is a resounding “yes!”; give a bare knife a sheath and a sharpener, and the simplest tool becomes objectively better.

But when there’s the slightest doubt, bias to the most general tool you can find.

This recipe calls for onions, too. I didn’t chop them with the peeler.