Learning how to wield knives carefully in the kitchen and in marriage
They say love cuts like a knife, but anyone who has ever been married knows that it's words, not love, that are required to get the proverbial dinner on the table.
But words are also what can do the most damage. The sharper they are, the swifter the cut, and if you don't use them right, you'll eventually draw blood.
To learn a little bit about using knives — both metaphorically and literally — as they are intended, I took my husband to a knife skills class at Whole Foods Market's culinary center just a few weeks before Valentine's Day.
Slicing a mango and bringing up the fact that your husband still hasn't gone to get the car registered both require a delicate handling to pull off without doing any damage. There's a right way to go about it that is both careful and intentional, and a wrong way, in which you hold the knife at the wrong angle and, in a split second, set the whole night off course. (Let's just hope stitches aren't involved.)
Instructor Jay Cusick quickly settled the score on one long-running issue between us: Knives and wooden utensils don't belong in the dishwasher.
"Look down the blade at what you are about to cut," Cusick tells the dozen or so students who have gathered around a large kitchen island. Not what you have cut or what you'd like to cut next. Focus on the consequences of your actions. Right. Now.
"Let the knife do what it is supposed to do."
Choosing the right tone is like choosing the right knife, and there is a time and a purpose for all kinds: the quotidian butter knife (an off-the-cuff "What's for dinner?") and the electric knife that only comes out once a year (the grave "We need to talk"). "Many knife injuries occur when laziness induces us to use the knife at hand rather than the correct knife for a job," the class handout explains.
And then there is the chef's knife. The everyday sturdy-handled silver workhorse that you can't cook properly without but that needs proper maintenance to do its job. The day-to-day exchanges you have with your partner around which your lives rotate: planning vacations, paying bills and yes, figuring out what's for dinner.
Chopping the knife up and down like a jackhammer is not what a chef's knife is for. You are supposed to slide your knife through whatever you're cutting, leaving the tip on the cutting board and pushing the blade back and forth, back and forth, dragging the tip of the knife on the wood. You should be able to glide the blade through even a hard sweet potato without too much pressure or force.
If you find yourself pushing too hard, your knife needs attention, and there's a big difference between honing a knife and sharpening it.
It's natural for a knife blade to curve to one side or the other after heavy use. By using a round steel rod at home, you can bring the still-sharp knife blade back to center and keep on cutting. But eventually, the blade in fact becomes dull and the only way to sharpen it properly it to take the knife to an expert who spends all day putting fresh edges out of tired blades. (You can use a whetstone or electric sharpener at home, but both require a certain expertise to do right.) But because sharpening a knife eventually whittles down the metal, you can only sharpen a knife so many times before it is worn beyond use.
The more frequently you hone your knife with a round steel rod at home, the less frequently you have to take it in for a big adjustment.
Over the past five years, Ian and I have done a lot of honing on our relationship. With two young kids and a still relatively new marriage, we're constantly adjusting — in knife terms, realigning — how we handle even minuscule tasks like who takes out the trash and how socks should be folded. If we go too long without giving proper care and attention to our marriage, it just gets harder and harder to figure out how to get back on track.
Cusick tells us what a marriage counselor might tell a troubled couple: It's not in class where you're going to perfect your skills; it's at home. Every grapefruit you cut into segments for breakfast, every slice of bread you saw off a French loaf for a sandwich, every onion you dice for dinner, you have to be aware of your technique and your tools.
And you don't learn to turn a spiky pineapple into perfect cubes after one lesson. Proper knife skills take time to develop. "You have to make a correct attempt at it over and over again until the muscle memory sets in," Cusick says. If your garlic isn't perfectly minced one day, by all means don't give up garlic altogether. "With time, practice and confidence, your speed will increase, but you do not need to look like a TV chef."
Every person will grip a knife in a slightly different way, Cusick says, and inexpensive blades will get the job done, but it isn't pleasant to use them. Treat yourself to a serious, well-made chef's knife — I finally bit the bullet and bought a $130 Wusthof last year — and you'll reap the reward for years to come.
Get one that feels right when you hold it. Then work with it in a way that maximizes comfort, control and safety while minimizing fatigue. Sound familiar?