A move to a new home is an excellent opportunity to chuck useless stuff, and I was (mostly) ruthless when I packed my New York apartment to move to Maine.
But as I weighed each decision to toss or keep, some items – useful and not - held an importance for me unconnected to their purpose. In choosing what to keep, I was reminded of times when, clearing out the homes of friends and relatives who had died, I asked myself why on god’s green earth the person had kept this chipped cup or that ghastly figurine.
Here, I think, is why:
Would you look at the design this wind-up timer - right out of the 1950s, which is exactly what it is. I was still a kid – 17 years old – when I went to work and got my first apartment. I bought the timer then, and although I’ve been tempted now and again in cooking supply stores to buy a new, more modern one, it works just fine.
But also, it’s a piece of my youth from 48 years ago. I hardly ever use it now – there’s a timer built into the stove, so I don’t know if keeping it is nostalgia or frugality (sometimes two things need to be timed at once). But I suspect it will still be in the kitchen drawer when I die.
I bought this mezzaluna, with its steel edge and wooden handle, in about 1964. I had learned to use one from my soon-to-be mother-in-law. Hers fit my hand perfectly and it took a lot of searching to find a duplicate, which I finally did in a hardware store in the North Beach section of San Francisco.
The shop had been there for about 50 years and the price of the mezzaluna – 25 cents - had undoubtedly been written on the blade in grease pencil at about the same time the store opened. Even in 1964, such a well-made piece of kitchen equipment usually went for at least a dollar and would probably cost $10 or $15 today.
These days we have food processors that chop parsley or mushrooms or hard-boiled eggs in three seconds, but you can’t easily control the finished size of the food. So I still make heavy use of this beautifully-made chopper.
Here’s one I have no idea why I’ve kept. I have never used this three-minute hourglass timer. Not once. It has no purpose in my life. I got it as a promotional item sometime in the early 1970s when I was producing local morning TV shows. It’s stamped on one end with the logo of Liberty Records, which hasn’t existed in at least two decades. The album title has worn off the other end.
Every now and again, as I shove it aside in the utensil drawer looking for something else, I think of throwing it out. But I never do.
Like the wind-up timer, this cast-iron frying pan is one of the first purchases I made for my first apartment. It has been perfectly tempered for decades now and woe unto anyone who would dare put it in soapy water.
Instructions for the fancy, glass-top, electric stove that came with this new apartment warn against using cast-iron pots and pans on the surface, which is a clear indication that the engineer is not much of a cook; there are some things that just won’t come out right unless they are cooked in cast iron. So I’m taking my chances with the new stove top.
A reporter friend of mine went to London in 1981, to cover the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Having a wonderful and odd sense of humor, she returned home with gifts for her friends - an astonishing array of cheap tchotchkes that were sold to commemorate the event: tea towels, key chains, scarves, soap dishes, pens and more. Each one, like my china box, was plastered with a bad photograph of the royal couple.
I often think I should throw it out so that when I die, no one will question my taste, but hey, it was a gift. And it’s funny. So it still sits on my dresser filled with nothing more than few foreign coins left over from countries I am unlikely to visit again.
Although it is hard to be certain, I think my getting older gives some of the oldest items – useful and not – their increased importance. Not always, but sometimes when I use the frying pan, I think a bit about how far I’ve come since I bought it. And the cooking timer has become a treasured antique, an artifact of the Fifties which are so often reviled, but during which I came of age.
They are touchstones that help mark my journey through life, jog my memory of past events and in a few cases, like the mezzaluna and the frying pan, are tools that can’t be improved upon, a pleasure to use.
So what’s been lying around your house for decades that people are going to make fun of when you die?