Slate on Design: In praise of wooden spoons

Posted June 19, 2012, at 5:09 p.m.

There are few things I absolutely have to have in a kitchen. I don’t need fancy pots (though Le Creuset makes some beautiful ones), or impressive tools I will rarely use (though I began asking for a blowtorch every Christmas at age 12), or single-use gadgets such as avocado slicers or mango pitters (you already own these — they’re called knives).

In fact, to feel confident that I can put together a good meal using whatever’s around, all I really need is some garlic, a little olive oil and a wooden spoon.

For other people, the first two of that threesome will vary — but the third should always stay the same.

Wood is sturdy but not harsh, lasts for years or even decades, and is one of the most versatile materials out of which a kitchen utensil can be crafted. Despite this, wooden spoons seem to have fallen out of favor in home kitchens. I rarely see more than one (if any at all) in the tangle of utensils on friends’ counters, and wooden utensils are consistently outnumbered by those made from other materials in stores. So many people neglect this beautifully efficient and historic kitchen tool, ignoring the many reasons wooden spoons are better than the rest.

Spoons predate forks by thousands of years, going back as far as the Paleolithic Era. The earliest known versions were simply small pieces of wood used to help scoop up foods not quite liquid enough to drink directly from a bowl. The etymology of the word “spoon” reflects these humble origins — the Anglo-Saxon “spon” means chip.

Since the moment of its invention, the wooden spoon has been integral to an impressive variety of cultural traditions. According to Charles Panati in “Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things,” wooden spoons have been uncovered alongside gold and silver versions in the tombs of ancient Egyptians, indicating that their owners saw them as useful enough to be considered essential even in the afterlife.

In late 18th-century Britain, wooden spoons were handed out as booby prizes to students with the worst academic performances; later, they were instead bestowed upon the most popular person in a class. To this day, “wooden spoon awards” are still sometimes given (though not always with actual spoons) to the team with the worst record in sports such as crew and rugby. All the while, wooden spoons have played an important role in kitchens around the world — and for good reason.

As long and varied as its history is, the wooden spoon’s versatility and durability is what makes it worth using. Wooden spoons don’t quickly heat to scalding temperatures, chemically react with acidic foods or scratch pots and bowls, as their metal counterparts do. They don’t melt or leach chemicals or strange tastes into hot foods as plastic does. A wooden spoon can be used to stir any dish in any type of vessel.

It can muddle lemon and mint for a whiskey smash, stop a pot of pasta from boiling over, and fold together the wet and dry ingredients of pancake batter.

It lasts forever, looks equally at home on a stovetop as on a beautifully set family-style table and, like Helen Mirren, just gets better-looking with age.

And yet take a quick look around a cooking-supply store (or most home kitchens), and it’s easy to see how outnumbered wooden spoons are by nonwooden ones. A Williams-Sonoma’s customer service representative, who said she sells more stainless-steel spoons than anything else, told me that the company’s wooden spoons are just not as popular as their flashier cousins.

A Sur La Table representative said the spoons she sells the most of are silicone. I browsed Amazon’s list of best-selling kitchen utensils and gadgets, which is updated hourly, on multiple occasions over the course of several weeks, and I never once saw a wooden spoon in the top 10 or even in the top 100.

Why do people prefer nonwooden spoons? There are a few concerns associated with wooden spoons, but none of them hold water.

For instance, many people worry that wooden spoons harbor bacteria and are therefore more likely to contaminate your food than plastic or metal spoons. It’s true that if you don’t properly clean your wooden spoon, it will retain bacteria — but so will any other type of spoon.

Thoroughly cleaning any utensil, wood or not, after it’s been in contact with raw meat, poultry or fish is the only sure way to prevent contamination, according to Angela Fraser, an associate professor and food safety specialist at Clemson University. Commercial kitchens sanitize wooden utensils with either soap and scalding water or a weak bleach solution, the latter of which is a bit extreme for home kitchens.

The easiest way for laypeople to sanitize wood that’s been in contact with raw meats is to put it in the dishwasher. Most dishwashers now have a high-temperature final rinse that will kill any residual bacteria that survived the detergent. Let wooden spoons air-dry after washing to ensure they are completely clean (dish towels can re-contaminate wood and don’t thoroughly dry it), and you’ll have no reason to fear food-borne illness.

But, you’re thinking, doesn’t wood retain the flavor of pungent foods? It can, but there’s an easy fix for this: Keep one spoon for savory dishes and one for sweet. (Do this for wooden cutting boards, too, and your apple pie will never taste like onions again.)

While all of these facts already tip the scale in favor of wooden spoons, there is also an emotional and visceral reason to use them that comes from the comforting, familiar way wood feels in your hand — not cold and severe like stainless steel or dull and characterless like plastic. Wood retains memories in a way that metal and plastic cannot. It shows signs of use. It changes color and texture, wears and ages, even changes shape.

I can look at one of my wooden spoons and see a dent from harried Thanksgiving cooking, or a dark spot from summer blueberry pie. And when I use the wooden spoon that belonged first to my grandmother, then to my mother and now to me, I cannot help but feel that I am cooking in the company of all past meals that the spoon has stirred and with the help of all the hands that have done the stirring.

Lee Havlicek is graduate of Barnard College and has worked in everything from cupcakes to publishing to Shakespeare.

 

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