On electrical appliances and hand tools
October 28, 2014 § 8 Comments
I recently read that the number of electrical appliances in an average British home has increased three and a half times in the last 20 years and the overall number of electronic consumer gadgets 11 times in the last 40!* In other words, the number of electrically powered consumer toys and domestic devices has ballooned in my lifetime. As Mr M and I still call the radio the wireless and I’ve only recently acquired a digital camera, we’re hardly the leading the charge where electrical gadgets are concerned but how do we fare with the household appliances?
Looking back at the appliances my parents owned around 1990 and those in my own home, I am struggling to work out what all these new or additional appliances are? My parents were an average professional family with modern comforts but it was not as if our family home was crammed with electrical stuff. Neither is my current home. So what equipment accounts for this appliance inflation?
Surely the average household only really ‘needs’ one oven, one fridge/freezer and one washing machine. Our house came with a dishwasher, not strictly necessary of course but an appliance that was not uncommon in the 1990s. I also bought a clothes spinner – a gift from heaven when drying clothes without a tumble dryer – but mum had one of those too for the same reason. In fact, mine is almost a carbon copy of hers as the design hasn’t changed since the seventies! There’s an iron and vacuum cleaner too but these are hardly revolutionary new electrical tools. Perhaps small kitchen appliances account for the gigantic growth in electrical household goods?
Despite cooking and baking from scratch, my list of small kitchen appliances is short, very short!
There’s my trusty workhorse: a Kenwood mixer, which looks and works just like my mother’s one from the late sixties, and has done sterling service for over seven years. As I suffer with arthritis, this appliance really makes kneading bread a lot easier. And thanks to it’s traditional three attachments it can also whip up cake mixes, cream and egg whites in no time at all.
Second on the list is a mini-chopper/blender, which is my go-to appliance for most savoury concoctions. The blade and bowl fitting chops and whizzes ingredients into pesto, tapenade, tartar sauce… in seconds while the stick attachment turns it into an efficient soup, bean paté, falafel mix… blender.
Finally there are those old favourites: an electric toaster and kettle because breakfast is the key meal of the day! And the wireless, of course, as the absence of endless whirring, grinding and pinging means I can actually listen to Radio 4 whilst cooking.
Am I inherently opposed to electrical appliances in the kitchen, or around the house in general? Hardly. If I had the space, money and time, I would invest in an overlocker and a bandsaw tomorrow, and I wouldn’t say no to a MIG welder either. I have my aspirations like anybody else!
However, as I’ve generally lived in small homes, with tiny kitchens, I have never gone in for a plethora of appliances. In the kitchen I would much rather devote limited cupboard space to ingredients, crockery and essential equipment. I also can’t bring myself to waste money on single function tools, whether electrical or not, unless they are really necessary. Most of all though, on the occasions when I’ve used small kitchen appliances, I’ve realised that many don’t really save time or effort.
I used to own an electric hand whisk before the engine burnt out but invariably I would resort to a wooden spoon when making a small cake as it was faster to work by hand than dig the appliance out of the back of the cupboard, fish the whisks out of the cutlery tray and clean the appliance afterwards. As long as I leave butter out to soften beforehand, using a spoon does the same job easily enough and involves less time overall. Similarly if I’m only whisking up a couple of egg whites or a little cream, I’ll use a balloon whisk as it is faster than dragging the Kenwood out of the cupboard and cleaning it when the job is done. Ditto for orange or lemon juice. Many years ago I had an electric juicer but ended up giving it away as washing the various parts was such a bore. Instead I use a classic glass juicer and a little elbow grease.**
Of course, electrical appliances and gadgets are not inherently bad but the gigantic increase in their numbers in and around the home explains why for all the improvements in technological efficiency, our electricity consumption has actually gone up in the same periods.***
At the same time, with electrical options becoming the default, the availability and quality of hand tools has plummeted. A couple of years ago I was looking for a traditional hand whisk. After much searching I eventually found one but it was made of poor quality metal with pinions of plastic that was so flimsy that they didn’t bite on the main wheel. Similarly, as it is assumed that everybody has a magi-mixer these days, hand-cranked mincers are all but a thing of the past. Not to mention a hand-operated coffee grinder to grind just enough beans for a fresh brew!
I’m pragmatic enough to realise that the loss of such hand tools does not signal the end of civilisation, but the disappearance of simple mechanical solutions that involve quality workmanship and an appropriate expenditure of energy for the task in hand just might…
* Andrew Simms and Ruth Potts, The New Materialism, Bread Print and Roses, 2012, p. 5.
** To extract the juice even more easily with an old school juicer, roll the orange or lemon over the counter top first to break down the fibres in the segments.
*** Department of Trade and Industry, Energy Consumption in the United Kingdom, London, p.23.