Friday, May 09, 2008

So much for art

When I told Lori what I almost bought, she asked which side of my family was responsible for the silver spoon gene. Very funny. Ha ha. This from a woman who on her 40th birthday asked—with a straight face, no less—for a 1996 Dodge Ram 2500 4x4 pickup with extended cab, towing package, the biggest V-8 offered and heavy-duty suspension. In blue. With a Hallmark camper attached.

Were I to add up each and every item I’d purchased since then that she considered extravagant, it would barely be a ripple compared to the thousands and thousands spent on her rig.

The occasion of my wife’s tasteless faux pas was a minor matter but which, on the larger scale of things, illustrates the chasmic differences between how the sexes view tools. More importantly, it brings up questions pertaining to the very nature of permanence, of art, even, dare I say, of sustenance.

It began simply enough. She baked two loaves of bread, artisan, heavy-crusted, wonderful stuff, and not at all like the soft, mealy, overpriced crap on supermarket shelves. The house was suffused with the warm aromatic fragrance that can only be experienced to be fully understood, and as she pulled the loaves from the oven we attacked them with a long-bladed bread knife. Only, alas, to be rebuffed.

Our 30-plus-year-old knife slid off the gnarly crust as if Tefloned. I checked the blade and discovered its serrated edge worn down to smooth, ineffectual nubs. It’s possible that if heated the blade might slice through soft margarine, though I wouldn’t wage bets.

“How long has it been like this?” I asked.

“Oh, a while,” she said.

The knife was made by Cutco, a brand made famous by starving college students and an aggressive marketing campaign. Indeed, Cutco had been my road to riches, or so I thought after sitting in on a career forum sponsored by the company. Buying into that richness was as simple as buying the first set of knives; thereafter, I could sell them at my own pace and, because of their purported quality and legendary sharpness (and, no doubt, millions spent on advertising), the cutlery was almost guaranteed to sell itself. My career lasted all of two evenings. 

But I still had the knives, and they were guaranteed for life. A quick check on the Internet found the company still in business, still marketing the same way (with similar complaints), and a downloadable form to have the knife sharpened for a measly six bucks, plus postage.

I don’t think so.

This launched me into one my favorite activities: research, which is a euphemism for a license to shop. Everybody and his cousin makes bread knives plus there’s the usual German wares I once was so fond of before realizing there are better blades. Amazon had an extensive selection with their concomitant opinions from shoppers, some of which were informative and others which were utterly baseless. Remembering an old report rating bread knives in a past Cooks Illustrated magazine, I dug through our past issues until I found it. Their favored knife after extensive testing was a Forschner Victorinox 10-inch knife with serrated edges. Amazon had one for $28 with free shipping. 

I should have stopped there. A reasonable housewife would have, and possibly most men. But it must be understood that I grew up on Conan the Barbarian novels, that for decades I worked with hand tools and found that quality lasts longer, is more pleasurable to use and requires less fussing. Conan the Barbarian would not use just any old sword to hack apart his enemies, some of whom were sorcerous and therefore tough to kill, or reptilian, or, in fact, already dead and in need of a further helping. Conan’s life depended on the best—why should I be different?

And so I plunged deeper into cyberspace, where after the usual choices running the gamut from $5.95 to $95 the field narrowed to exactly one: Shun. I clicked on a Web site and across my 24-inch monitor flashed a vision of craftsmanship that left me practically weeping.

Forged in the samurai sword-making center of Seki, Japan, endorsed by celebrity chef Alton Brown, each Shun blade has a core of VG-10 super steel, upon which 16 layers of SUS410 high-carbon stainless steel are folded and hammered together onto each side to form a lustrous Damascus-style pattern. Like samurai swords, they feature thinner blades with edges sharpened at more acute angles than Western cutlery. D-shaped handles made with PakkaWood prevent the knife from twisting in hand and are ergonomically designed to fit the way your hand curves around the handle, providing superb balance and heft. The bread knife was a gorgeous work of art, an elegant tool of the highest caliber. It was stunning, and it was on sale for a mere $120. With free shipping!

I wanted one. And I knew with an instinctual survivability honed by 34 years of marriage that my wife would vehemently oppose the purchase. A woman uses cost as a measurement, but cost should be merely a factor, and not necessarily a crucial one.

Because this is what perfection brings: Fifteen years from now when you pick up that knife, you’ll have the exquisite sensation of owning the very best. Its balance, its heft, its loveliness, will be as fresh as the day it first graced your hand. It will be like owning a classic work of art, a Rembrandt or Picasso, and with it the soul-satisfying delight that sustains and enhances life. Whatever price you paid will have long since been relegated to the dust of obscurity. When you die, your kids will heft that hallowed blade and wish you’d bought the entire set even if it meant the absence of a plum financial settlement. Their eyes will glaze in rapture. They will wish you’d died sooner

So I ordered a new bread knife. Fifteen years from now I’ll probably still be using it. When my kids inherit it, they’ll take one look at the one-piece rubber grip, the stamped blade, the lusterless finish, and toss it in the trash. They’ll never know I saved $100 by settling for the merely ordinary. They won’t care. So much for art and lasting contentment.

No comments: