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A Sharp Decline

Knife and whetstone, suitable for home sharpening.

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Friend of The Food Geek, Waldo, asks via Twitter: 

@thefoodgeek: Why did there used to be itinerant knife sharpeners, and now there aren’t? Did knives change, or our use of them? 
Waldo Jaquith

Hi, Waldo,

There are several reasons for the decline of the itinerant knife sharpeners. They aren’t completely gone, as Alton Brown has shown his sharpener, who works out of the back of his van, and I suspect he is not the last of the itinerant knife sharpeners. When you asked your question, I certainly got an image in my mind of the Old West, a place that is as much myth as it was reality, and a horse drawn wagon with a load of equipment. Perhaps there would be some tinkering involved, banging flaws out of old pots and pans, or perhaps you just needed your knives sharpened.

When I was growing up, I can say that I knew more about the milk man than I did any knife sharpeners, even though I have never met anyone who fulfilled either role. At least the milk man got quite a bit of press, whereas knife sharpening was something that didn’t even occur to me. After all, we had the electric can opener, and that had a sharpener on t he back of it, so what more could we need. If I were to wait a few years, the Ginsu knives would be promoted, and they would never dull. And this, of course, illustrates some of the problem: education.

A lot of people think that sharp knives are dangerous knives. Think of elementary school safety scissors: no points, very dull, and safe to give to hyperactive children with no regard for their personal safety or the cost of a ream of paper. With this image in mind, it’s clear that a dull bit of metal must be safer than a sharp bit of metal, so the thought of sharpening a knife rarely comes up. It’s a wrong impression, as a sharp knife goes where you want it to, and a dull knife slides off a tomato or an onion to bite into your skin. No, it’s not the only reason you cut yourself in the kitchen, but a sharp mind and a sharp knife are going to save you more blood than a dull one of either.

Another problem is that we have kind of a disposable culture now. Hopefully that trend is reversing, but it’s really easy to get a $10 knife that will last a few years before you think that, maybe, you’re working too hard at your cutting. Go to the big Kitchen Supply Store, see a fancy new $20 knife, and move up in the world. This is especially common if the first knife you buy is the one to match your first real apartment in college, and you don’t have anyone to teach you what a real knife can do for you.

Still, there are people who know good knives, and they know how important it is to sharpen them. Most of these people are chefs and line cooks, and from what I understand, they tend to fall into two camps: 1) the restaurant will send their knives away for sharpening; or 2) they will sharpen them on their own. Though I am neither a line cook nor a chef, I did finally get around to sharpening my own knives, and I can say that it’s not a difficult process. And the experience I had slicing the first tomato of the season with my freshly sharpened knife was a thing of beauty, so I can see the appeal. However, if you work someplace that sends everyone’s knives for sharpening, I can see the appeal of that as well.

One of the advantages of modern times which factors into the lack of itinerant knife sharpeners is that shipping is so much faster than it used to be. If you can get by without your knives for a couple of days, then you could pack them in a box, overnight them to someone for sharpening, and get them back within a day or two. The convenience of the shipping lessens the need for an itinerant knife sharpener.

Automatic, motorized knife sharpeners are apparently better than they were in the day of the electric can opener. The old style sharpeners would generally just wear down your knife rather quickly, peeling away layer after layer of metal in an attempt to sharpen. Nowadays, I’m told that you can not only get a quality sharpener, but you can get ones specific for the kind of steel in your knife. Typically, Japanese knives can handle a steeper angle than European knives, so you need a different sharpener to get that angle.

Though the motorize devices and the sharpening services are terribly convenient, I really like being able to sharpen my knives by hand. It gives me a better connection to the knife, and it makes me appreciate the care and use of the knife better. After all, if you are going to have to sharpen the knife by hand, you’ll be far less likely to do anything with the knife that would dull it quickly, such as washing in the dishwasher, cutting on glass or stone, or slicing paper with it. To be sure, you can damage your knife if you don’t sharpen it properly, but once you learn how, it’s not a difficult skill to maintain.

I think that connection with the knife and its maintenance is the final factor of the decline of the itinerant knife sharpener: those who truly care about their knives will be more likely to sharpen them by hand; those who need many knives sharpened can send them away for quick sharpening; and those who don’t fit either of the first two categories can either sharpen by machine or just won’t sharpen them at all. Still, if you know of an itinerant knife sharpener in your area, and you like the work that comes out of the back of that van, it would certainly be worth striking up a relationship. Specialty tools, years of experience, and general knowledge of sharpening can provide a better and more durable edge than you can likely do at home, so there are good reasons to hope that we haven’t seen the last of that particular brand of artisan.

Need to know more about knives? Check out FineCooking.com’s section on knife skills, where you’ll learn everything from how to choose, maintain, and sharpen a chef’s knife to techniques for making the perfect cuts, including how to chop fresh herbs, how to custom-cut a beef tenderloin, and how to cut fresh corn off the cob.


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  • SeleneLuna | 06/09/2010

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  • SeleneLuna | 06/09/2010

    great site really informative i learned a lot great stuff keep it up
    by anna essay writer

  • SeleneLuna | 06/09/2010

    i love knifes great site really informative i learned a lot great stuff keep it up

    by anna essay writer

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