Tools of Transformation

When is a Cheese Grater Not a Cheese Grater?

Inga Bryden

Edwin Heathcote has highlighted the kitchen as being at the heart of the paradox between the `homely’ and the `high-tech’, and psychologically linked to the notion of `miraculous transformation’ (2012: 59-60).
This paper will investigate the notion of transformation (of ingredients into food) in relation to the use (or `misuse’) of kitchen utensils in the domestic space of the kitchen.
Drawing on theories from material culture and cultural geography, I will focus on the representation of culinary objects which are seen to have agency, and which are thus unpredictable. As Julian Barnes remarks in The Pedant in the Kitchen, a malfunctioning kitchen becomes a metaphor for the culinary process and, more broadly, for the home as being about `making do with what you’ve got’ (2003: 127).
Kitchen gadgets can map out the ultimate modern domestic space, whilst also defining that space as ripe for recollection, fantasy and improvisation. In doing so they are seen to occupy (in the spatial sense) an unstable relationship with the individual as he or she strains for culinary harmony. Well-used cooking tools can acquire a patina over time (just as cookery books become `messy’ through use), becoming not only an integral part of food culture, but giving rise to nostalgia and longing.
The paper considers the ways in which the `homely’ culinary tool, associated with traditional cooking, interacts with the technological `gadget’ or device. Both kinds of objects can be unpredictable – and I consider the extent to which `kitchen clutter’ is represented (and promoted) as a creative virtue, or as problematic. As theorists of material culture have argued, things can appear to have lives of their own, particularly in the domestic imaginary. And if usage is adapted, ordinary kitchen tools take on different meanings (for example, when culinary implements become spacecraft in Company Gavin Robertson’s 2010 physical theatre piece A Space Oddity).
The examples discussed are selected from a range of cultural texts: literature (particularly culinary fiction and cookery writing); visual culture; cookbooks; cookery television programmes, and performance pieces. A key aim of the paper is to contribute to a broader cultural understanding of how cooking tools (through improvisation, re-contextualisation, creative adaptation, and transformation) `make home’.