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Blades [Oct. 17th, 2010|09:55 am]
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While peeling apples last night, I was reminded how little force it takes to penetrate skin with a really sharp blade (cooks develop callused thumbs, and this is a good blood on the apples, just a sting.)   A friend in the SCA told me about research done to determine if someone could "accidentally" stab someone else, and the answer is a definite "Yes."    Human reflexes are too slow to pull a knife point back if either the knife-holder's arm is moving forward, or the other person is, when the first contact is made...because to a sharp point, human skin is hardly a barrier.  

The edge of a really sharp knife is just as efficient at parting skin (or lopping off fingernails...I can't count the number of times I've left my thumb that tiny distance too close to a chef's knife and removed part of my left thumbnail, sometimes including a bit more than thumbnail.  A somewhat duller knife will also do it--which is why dull kitchen knives are more dangerous than sharp ones; they can "skip" on a tough bit of what you're cutting and leap onto a finger...and again, reflexes are too slow to reverse the move.

As I get older (and slower of reflex, and slightly arthritic in the hands) the little paring knives I've used for the past 40 years are just not cutting it (yes, a pun, but not, I admit, a good one.)    The handles are too small, as well as slippery when wet (with, for instance, apple juice) and the blades don't hold their edge well.  They never did, but I used to get along with them.

So now I have new paring knives, which feel a little strange (esp the one I used to peel the apples) but are good-quality steel, with larger handles.   And they're very sharp.   They came with little tip-protector rings (small and easily lost...I think the manufacturer expected buyers to have a knife block.  I don't; instead, I'm making little cardboard sheaths for them.)    The way I learned to peel apples from my mother, the thumb of the hand holding the paring knife helped control the blade of the knife as it slid through just under the skin and was used as a sort of buffer (if the length of peel was sufficient) when the knife rose through the skin.   My thumb tells me that  I've gotten in the habit of working with duller knives than the new one.   I'm going to like the "bird-beak" one--the actual peeling went much more easily--but  by the third apple I was very carefully not using my thumb as a buffer. 

The first money I ever earned (painting a fence) I spent on a knife.   It wasn't for cooking; it was a general purpose hunting knife and until I broke the tip off trying to learn to throw it (Davy Crockett movie had a lot to answer for)  it was used on camping trips.  Even after, for jobs that didn't require a point.    It's probably the childhood years in the hardware store that gave me the fascination with blades (oddly, not firearms, which the store also sold.)   If you have been around good iron and steel as a child--if you know metals by smell and touch--and you've also grown up with cooking-from-scratch,  doing prep for a cooking mother and then cooking yourself--then appreciation of, and desire for, good metal--and good metal in blades--is a reasonable result. 

And that led to other blades, and fencing.    In sport fencing, as we do it (Renaissance style)  the edge and point of a blade are merely symbolic.  The tips are ground off, if they're purchased sharp, and covered in addition with a protective blunt rubber/plastic "button."   Edges are not sharpened.  The lethal possibilities of the steel are reduced as much as possible and protective steel (the gorget protecting vital structures in the throat) reduces the danger from blunt blows.    Groups that fight "sharp" wear substantial protection (it's difficult to explain to the police that you stabbed someone with a sword but didn't mean to hurt them.)   The grace of the blade is thus reduced, but there's still the gleam of light along it and the awareness that, if not for the protective restrictions, the swordblade is mortality.

This is probably why some people collect swords, rather than use them, or keep a fully sharp one (a katana is the current fashion, I gather) around.   Practicing with a sword, even a rebated (blunted) one,  forces a certain awareness of one's mortality.   There's a (pardon another pun) point to that awareness.   In civilized places (or what think they are civilized places)  awareness of one's own mortality can be savored, not feared, increasing appreciation of the gifts of life. 

What is less recognizable, to most, is that the paring knife used to that halve and quarter the apple and scoop out the seeds is just as lethal.   Only time with swords led me to realize that, in spite of having worked in EMS and seen knife wounds, and knowing that most blade deaths in the country today (not all, but most) are the results of knives.   Accidental and intentional, stabs and slices, with knives that live in kitchen drawers, on kitchen counters...knives that are designed for, and good at, peeling and cutting up fruits and vegetables,  fish and fowl and red meat.   The big ones are thought dangerous for children (the chef's knives, the cleavers, the larger boning knives)  but measure a paring knife against the distance to a major artery--or, in a thinner, person, the heart--and its lethality is clear.   Mostly, cutting up carrots and celery and potatoes and apples and onions and so on, peeling and chopping and dicing, I don't think about that.  Knives are tools to me, not weapons, and when I'm thinking about preparing food, I'm not often thinking about mortality. The task takes over;  the goal is feeding people.  

But last night, working with the apples, as the new and very sharp blades kissed the ball of my thumb just enough to give me a tiny sting, fair warning,  the newness and sharpness of the blades brought it to mind.   These little kitchen blades, these tame little tools...are cousins of every other blade.   In these modern days, in this place, we can have specialized blades at many price points for every purpose, not only in the kitchen.  Long, short, thin, broad,  dozens of designs, hundreds at least of choices.   We don't cut our meat with the same dagger used to stab an enemy any more, which hides, in part, the fundamentals of blades.   They sit in the knife block, or lie in the drawer,  gleaming and helpful.    Innocent.  And lethal.

Which is how they end up in murder investigations. 

In a day or so, all this will have sunk back into the under-surface of my mind, and I'll be using the new paring knives casually, with just enough care not to cut myself.  They will be tamed--in my mind--by my assumption that they are merely some of my kitchen tools,  existing only to prepare foods.   Peel, slice, dice, chop, one blade after another will come out of the drawer, be used, be cleaned and dried and resharpened and put back without a thought of its potential for other uses. 


[User Picture]From: alicephilippa
2010-10-17 03:28 pm (UTC)
I've always worked on the basis that good knives are worth the cost as they'll certainly now outlast me. Add to that good steel will take and keep a keen edge. I've some Japanese blades. Including the most gorgeous flat backed sushi knife, that take an edge good enough to shave the hairs off my arms.

That said, the better the knife the less force that is needed to do the job in hand so the even if it does slip then the degree of damage may well be less. From lots of experience a cut from a sharp knife, because there is reduced tearing of the tissues, will heal cleaner and quicker.

I'm still pondering how I got a cut on the ball of my right thumb whilst preparing dinner yesterday eve. Like yourself I'm forever shaving my left thumbnail.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-10-17 03:48 pm (UTC)
My new knives will certainly outlast me. Likewise the good pots. Someone's going to enjoy them after I'm gone.

Finding new uses/homes for the old pots is easy, but the worst of the old knives really aren't good for much--I've taken my cuts and nicks from them over the years and now they're worse--so I don't want to inflict them on someone else (esp. anyone not pretty skilled in keeping some kind of edge on them.) They'll go in a box until I figure out an appropriate the old days, the village smithy would recycle the steel, but now I dunno.
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[User Picture]From: alicephilippa
2010-10-17 03:59 pm (UTC)
I've got that box of random old knives and cutlery that I'm loathe to throw away. If they were old horse shoes I'd know what to do with them, but old knives and stuffs. Notta clue.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-10-17 04:04 pm (UTC)
If I find out, I'll post it.
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-10-17 08:19 pm (UTC)
Consider donating them to an artist who works in mixed media. One trend is to incorporate old things into larger pieces, be it embedding them into encaustic wax or welding them to other bits of metal.

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[User Picture]From: made_of_paradox
2010-10-21 11:04 pm (UTC)
Elizabeth, if this is something you'd be interested in doing, I may be able to help find such an artist (or several such) for you.

dirtwitch could probably help find such folk, as well.
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[User Picture]From: damedini
2010-10-17 03:49 pm (UTC)
I have a scar on the knuckle of my left thumb. I got it by tightening my grip as my knife slipped. I have sliced that scar off several times as well (very precisely, in the same motion that caused the initial wound) but the new one matches the old.
I also bought myself a knife very young. Having grown up on Narnia and Middle Earth, I knew that I needed a knife if I wanted to be a hero.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-10-17 04:08 pm (UTC)
My grandfather whittled things. He died when I was four, but I remember standing by his knee and watching shape come from a chunk of wood with his little pocketknife. My mother also whittled and carved, as well as using knives in the kitchen, and she had a hunting knife/camping knife that she used when we were out in the brush. And a hatchet--so I learned to use that, and then later an axe (cut down a small but very hard-hearted tree when I was about 13-14.)

I think that's what started the interest, that and having the knives on display in the store.
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[User Picture]From: blackbyrd2
2010-10-17 05:19 pm (UTC)
A big part of why I enjoy cooking comes from the use of a good, sharp chef's knife. A well designed blade makes slicing and dicing a real pleasure.

And yes, I've chopped off my left thumbnail more often than bears thinking about, but I have been fortunate in that it's never yet been more than the nail, although there have been times when I wondered how I managed to avoid amputating the end of my thumb when I see how much nail I just lopped off.

I purchased a quality electric knife sharpener because I can never get that razor sharpness I like using a stone. Best $125 I ever spent.
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[User Picture]From: alicephilippa
2010-10-17 05:58 pm (UTC)
I only use a stone if the blade needs dressing back into shape, other than that I just use a steel.

My favourite 8" Sabatier cooks knife is just starting to develop a slight hollow at the tang end.

My maternal Grandmother's carving knife, which I still have, is so hollow from being sharpened that there'd be almost no blade left if I tried to dress it back into shape.

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From: thefile
2010-10-17 08:07 pm (UTC)
Two things:
1. The school of Swordsmanship I follow teaches Steel=Death. We use padded PVC that ends up with the same weight, balance and aerodynamics as a real blade. Even at that, serious injuries are possible. Just the weight traveling at it's tip speed with no edge at all is dangerous.

2. I toured the Holocaust Museum in Farmington Hills Michigan last year. At the end of the tour, we were privileged enough to hear a survivor speak. His mother worked at the camp kitchen and had managed to smuggle out and give to him a broken stump of a knife. 1/2" of blade, and half a handle. Two weeks later, while the truck was transporting him to another camp (likely to be shortly followed by the gas chamber) he managed to cut one of the straps holding the cover on the back of the truck and bail out on a road crossing. That little 1/2" of steel saved his life.
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[User Picture]From: amusingmuse
2010-10-17 09:28 pm (UTC)
Considering I very nearly killed someone with a Chef's knife, I can believe this. People just don't realize. I thankfully didn't draw blood, but that was sheer luck and his reflexes to jump back as I swung it on him. All I know is from that point the busboy NEVER molested me again. I never had to have his hands roving my body again. Ever.

NOTE: Yes, I did ask him and management to stop. I was told he was just being 'friendly'.
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[User Picture]From: 90sbondgirl
2010-10-18 10:07 am (UTC)
I agree - a knife, any knife can hurt someone, including the wielder, fairly badly.

My biggest a-ha! moment came when, after years of cussing at paring knives to peel apples, I saw someone do it with a carrot peeler. So I tried it, and oh my goodness how much easier! Run a ring around the top, then strokes from top to bottom for the sides, another ring around the bottom to finish up. Any other fiddly bits by hand with a knife. And with my gorgeous Good Grips peeler, fast, easy, comfortable, and best of all safe for my fingers.

p.s. I too have removed bits of thumbnail, but fortunately to this point nothing further. Although occasional cuts have occurred in other places, oddly my worst injury was with a pop-top tuna can, necessitating 2 stitches. It took me several months to voluntarily purchase anything in a pop-top can again.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-10-18 01:59 pm (UTC)
Pop-up cans...yeah. Though the kind of cans that used to hold sardines, with a little key glued to the can that you were supposed to turn, winding up a strip of metal along the side of the can, that was sharp on both edges...that was a hazard, too.

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[User Picture]From: amm_me
2010-10-18 03:53 pm (UTC)
Last Christmas I had a big tree and dug out some of the OLD family collection of ornaments that I haven't gotten into for a while. Among the homemade items from the fifties, along with some fairly dilapidated origami creations, were several shiny round "stars" made from tin can lids fringed around the edges with tin-snips, and a couple of "icicles" made from those sardine-can or Spam-can strips. Take one of those wound-up metal strips and CAREFULLY pull the center out to one side, and you create a very nice twisted spiral about 9 inches long. Seems to last forever, too.
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