My grandmother was born in 1905 and except for a brief time when my grandfather worked in a Detroit factory during World War II, Anna lived her entire life in the Dakotas. I was raised mostly in Texas suburbs and on family visits was always mesmerized by her “old ways” of doing things.
On a tiny property in Foxholm, North Dakota, Anna raised and butchered her own chickens, grew wonderful vegetables, and canned everything you could imagine. Whether she was slicing potatoes for a dinner casserole or cucumbers for a lunch salad, I don’t recall that my grandmother used a cutting board. She was like a serene machine holding each vegetable in her left hand while slicing thinly with the knife in her right hand—always in the same part of the blade. It was almost hypnotic to watch, especially, during my later visits after she had developed a tremor so that her head bobbed quietly in rhythm with the slicing.
When Anna passed away in 1996, my uncle Adam called to ask which of Anna’s belongs I wanted, recalling that his sister (my own deceased mom) had once asked for the treadle sewing machine. I was blessed with many cousins, and he was balancing everyone’s requests. I thanked him for remembering but asked for my grandmother’s kitchen knife instead. My uncle asked again, to make sure he understood my request. In that moment on the telephone, I sensed a hint of admiration on his part as a man who knew the meaning of a trusted tool.
This knife arrived by mail, packed with a cardboard sheath fashioned by my uncle to protect me from its very sharp blade. Clearly, Anna knew how to maintain the only knife I ever saw her use. I keep it on a memento shelf in my living room. I smile whenever I see it because it always brings up images of my mom and me visiting our North Dakota loved ones.
I was moved to share the photograph of Anna’s knife after seeing a knife display in a kitchen gadget shop and a bin of knives in a thrift store.
As you see, the kitchen store was selling a “Tomato Knife” for $119.99 and a “Cook’s Knife” for $149.99. The thrift store was selling any knife in the bin for $1 and most of them showed little wear.
Grandma’s knife couldn’t have cost more than a few dollars in the days before today’s throw-away economy. While that expensive tomato knife will no doubt last many years, it is unlikely to survive the culinary interests of its owner.
There is a lesson here, but I will leave it to each reader to decide its meaning.
R.A. Kroft writes about her day-to-day journey in living a smaller, more sustainable life and other topics that interest her.
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