The season of the knife
My grandfather, the general, taught me how to sharpen knives when I was 12 years old. “Boy! Get in here! I’ve got something I want to teach you!” he called from the kitchen late one afternoon when my brother Frank and I were visiting him and grandma for the summer.
I found him in the kitchen wearing an apron and holding a 10-inch carving knife in his right hand. Before him on the counter was his sharpening stone, worn down into a gentle curve from the thousands of times the blade of a knife had been drawn across its surface.
“There is going to come a time in your life, my boy, when your father will be called away to a foreign war or on assignment overseas, and you’ll need to know how to carve a turkey or a roast beef or a leg of lamb. But first, you’re going to learn to sharpen a knife, because there is nothing worse on this God-given earth than trying to cut into a piece of roasted meat with a dull knife.”
I had no way of knowing it, of course, but the next hour turned out to be one of the most important moments in my life. Grandpa was a believer in drizzling a thin line of 3-in-1 oil on the stone before he began, the better to carry away from the edge of the blade the microscopic bits of steel removed from the blade as you gave it long, careful strokes across the stone.
He showed me how to angle the blade about 15 degrees from the surface of the stone to achieve the best edge, and he showed me how to move the blade from one side of the stone to the other while pulling the handle of the knife toward you so the entire length of the blade crossed the stone with each stroke.
Then he let me take a shot at it. My first strokes across the stone were hesitant and clumsy, but with his gentle coaching I got better and better at it. All the while, grandpa was describing to me what we were doing to the blade. Essentially, he said, we were massacring the edge microscopically, turning what had been a beautifully smooth piece of steel into a mountain range of jagged peaks and valleys. If you could look at it under a microscope, he explained, the edge would look like a serrated knife looks without magnification.
“That’s what makes a sharp knife sharp, my boy,” grandpa said. “It’s like a line of tiny razors. When a knife gets dull, the razors are worn down and the edge is smooth. What a stone does is abrade the steel and make it jagged again. It’s also why a sharp knife will cut you so easily. The tiniest movement, and the jagged little razors slip through your skin, and you bleed.”
I could launch into a Great Oration about Grandpa teaching me to carve that summer, beginning with a roast beef and moving to a leg of lamb, thence to a turkey. But I would rather celebrate the thing that makes it all possible: the knife.
I have owned dozens of knives over the 50-plus years I’ve had a kitchen and taught myself to cook. I started out with supermarket knives, picked up in the “kitchen equipment” aisle. Then there came the day I went to Bloomingdales to buy my Le Creuset orange pot. As we were leaving the kitchen department, I spied a display of knives in a glass case against the wall. It was like they were jewelry or something, so valuable they had to be protected by a locked display case. Checking the prices, I saw why: they were in fact valuable. A single Solingen or Wusthof carving knife with a full tang and a riveted handle would have set me back a week’s pay at the Village Voice.
I wrote a story for “True Magazine” for a small fortune and hied myself up to Bloomies and got myself one of the fine German knives which I had until it disappeared in a move or got left behind in a divorce or loaned out to a “friend” who never returned it. I loved that knife and the string of good paring knives and boning knives and chef’s knives I got after it. But my favorite knives were the ones I never owned.
In the early days of my young-manhood, they belonged to the mothers of girlfriends who were serious enough to take me home and introduce me to their families. I quickly learned that inevitably the issue of a dull knife – or much more likely knives – would arise, and I would volunteer to sharpen them. Out would come a contraption that had probably begun its life on an after-midnight infomercial: a plastic stand of some kind usually with a pair, or even two pair, of rotating steel wheels, through which you were supposed to draw the knife blade, and voila! Just like that it was supposed to emerge from its journey between the rattling wheels so sharp a man could shave with it!
The word bogus no doubt came into being to describe such utterly useless devices. Sometimes if I went through the family garage or the father’s woodworking shop I could find a sharpening stone shoved into the back of a drawer or buried under a pile of rusting screwdrivers and pliers. I would emerge from my adventures through the family’s male wonderland triumphant and lay the thing down on a kitchen counter and begin. I accompanied my ministrations to the dull knife with my grandfather’s oration about sharpening knives, often word for word. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I recall the faces of mothers glowing and the eyes of girlfriends glistening as this display of male wizardry in the kitchen took place, away from the presence of the “man of the house,” who was usually golfing or in the den watching football.
At the time I moved to New York and took the job with the Voice almost everyone I knew carried a “Danish schoolbag,” a wonderful canvas shoulder bag with multiple pockets that expanded with a zipper along the sides. It didn’t take me long to tuck a sharpening stone into one of the bag’s side pockets, just in case it was needed, you understand.
My favorite knife sharpening story happened one Thanksgiving in the early 70’s when I accompanied my girlfriend to “Winthrop House,” the main residence of the Winthrop family in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Her mother was related to them somehow, and it was a tradition that her family be invited to Thanksgiving dinner.
The place was a Georgian mansion of some 60 rooms on a property so large and magnificent that the American equestrian team held the trials for the Olympics in their backyard. The Winthrops are a storied American family you may recognize from the phrase, “The Cabots and the Lodges and the Winthrops…” One of the colleges at Harvard was built by a Winthrop. That kind of storied American family.
But hard times had fallen on families like the Winthrops by the 1970’s in the form of missing help. They had lost their Irish cooks and housekeepers in years past, and by the time I arrived, the place was somewhat tattered, and the kitchen was a foreign land apparently infrequently visited by family members. Among the lost or missing items in the kitchen were of course sharp knives. They had knives all right. But sharp ones? Ha! The last time one of those things had passed across a sharpening stone must have been the 1950’s.
For reasons that escape me, I had neglected to bring my Danish schoolbag to Thanksgiving dinner in Ipswich, so my sharpening stone was not with me. One of the younger brothers and I made a cursory search, but whatever workshops the Winthrops had appeared to be located in outbuildings, so we were unable to turn up a proper sharpening stone.
As the time grew near for the carving of the turkeys – it was a large extended family and there were three birds as I recall – I could see disaster looming. Then I remembered the driveway outside was paved with some sort of flat slate-like stones, so the younger brother and I took a random screwdriver we had found and dislodged one of the smaller paving stones and brought it inside.
It goes without saying that a Winthrop paving stone had never ventured inside Winthrop House, and so the thing drew a crowd as I rinsed it in the sink and laid it flat on one of the kitchen counters. I chose a carving knife the blade of which appeared not to have been murdered over the past 20 years or so and began the ritual of sharpening.
To my utter amazement, it worked! It took a while, but gradually the blade achieved an edge that would slice through the skin of a roasted turkey without pushing it through the breast to the bone.
By the time I had the knife sharp, the family was somewhere between aghast and amazed. Shocked would not be far off. I didn’t blame them. A stranger, unrelated by blood, had arrived and basically taken over the kitchen. But they were helpless, and they knew it.
People pitched in and carried the side dishes to the table, a massive affair that seated at least 20. I carried all three birds into the dining room and lined them up at the head of the table. Without breaking stride, I began carving the first bird, neatly slicing away the leg and thigh and wing and started on the breast. One magnificent slice after another fell away from the turkey breast as if by magic.
Suddenly I noticed I had displaced Fred Winthrop, the family patriarch, who was standing next to me. I was carving the birds at his spot at the table. “Would you like to give it a try, Fred?” I asked, reversing the blade and pointing the handle at him. “No, no, you’re doing fine!” he exclaimed.
The youngest brother, spying a potentially awkward situation, moved a place setting and chair to the head of the table, and when I was finished carving the last turkey, Fred and I sat down next to each other at the head of the table. A good sport if there ever was one, he lifted his glass in a toast: “To our new chef!” he exclaimed.
“To General Truscott, my grandfather,” I said, raising my glass, “who taught me everything I know about sharp knives and carving a turkey. And now, as he used to say every night as we sat down to dinner, let joy be unrestrained!”
And that’s why I call this time of year the season of the knife.