||[Oct. 17th, 2010|09:55 am]
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 thing...no 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.