At the end of a long workday, cooking a dinner from scratch or even semi-scratch might seem like a herculean feat. There’s all that washing, chopping, boiling and sauteing involved, after all. But, as any Downton Abbey fan can attest, getting meals on the table used to be far more time- and labor-intensive, in part due to the quality that was expected without modern appliances. British food historian Ivan Day told NPR:
“Cooks and their assistants, he says, were often highly skilled at very advanced cuisines. Take, for example, the “fancy ices” that were all the rage at the end of the 19th century. Ambitious cooks would use specialized copper and pewter molds to create elaborate ice cream delicacies in the shapes of swans, doves, even asparagus — all without the benefit of modern refrigeration.”
You won’t find any pewter asparagus ice molds in any 21st-century kitchens these days (although that would make for an excellent “Portlandia” sketch). And considering those and other extinct kitchen items, it underscores just how good the modern cook has it. Sure, it still takes precious minutes and movement to churn out a home-cooked something-or-other for dinner, which is generally a thriftier and healthier option than faster, already prepared food. But imagine how nice it is that you don’t have to first put your bowl of raisin bran through a raisin seeder at the breakfast table because it wasn’t until the early 20th century that dried grapes came in the seedless variety.
]One model patented in 1895 seemed simple enough to use, at least:
The instructions embossed on metal frame of this seeder are “wet the raisins.” The seeder is meant to clamp onto the edge of a table. Then the raisin was placed in the “cup” on top, the handle was turned to move two wheels that moved in opposite directions. One wheel has small spike-like extrusions and is of metal, the other is made of what looks like a hard rubber.
A Downton Abbey-era kitchen staff would also have been familiar with crumb scrapers, or miniature brooms and dustpans solely intended to sweep crumbs off plates before reusing them for dessert. Classy Victorian kitchen might’ve also contained meat juicers, which pressed out the liquid in cooked meats for later medicinal use since it was thought to be a nutrient-rich serum to soothe tooth loss. Fast-forwarding to far more futuristic kitchen of the 1940s, combination butter churn/washing machines were hailed as the dual-duty solution to women’s most pressing (butter churn pun?) domestic problems. In 1950, Popular Mechanics even offered a DIY method on “converting your washing machine into a butter churn in just a few minutes.”
Of course, in exchange for extinct items like this, 21st-century kitchens now are stocked with a host of utensils and appliances expressly designed to trim cooking time like, say, boiling balsamic vinegar down to a reduction sauce. Take the Hutzler 571 banana slicer, a real cutting-edge innovation. The dullest of knives are no longer necessary to painstakingly divide that potassium-rich monkey food into bite-sized segments thanks to this modern invention. One Amazon reviewer summed up its life-altering potential: “What can I say about the 571B Banana Slicer that hasn’t already been said about the far wheel, penicillin, or the iPhone…. this is one of the greatest inventions of all time.”
The greatest, at least, since asparagus ice cream molds.