Food » Object of Desire

As seen on TV: kitchen gizmos

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"In Japan, a hand can be used like a knife ... " (Commercial shows Japanese guy breaking a stack of 2-by-4s.)

" ... but this method doesn't work with a tomato!" (Man pulverizes a tomato with side of his hand.)

Who didn't love a Ginsu knife? It could cut food as delicate as a kiwi and as robust as a deer's leg—OK, not a deer's leg, but it could gnaw through a radiator pipe and a steel can—and still stay sharp.

Ginsu knives, the Veg-O-Matic, the Chef 'n' Go: Sold only on TV, they belonged to a class of cutting-edge kitchen gadgets that, Ronco promised, would make our lives better and every day more enjoyable.

Before QVC and the Home Shopping Network, companies like Ginsu, Ronco and Presto would hawk their wares via late-night commercials. When cable TV became more pervasive, the companies would buy full-length infomercials, which were often banished to the programming boondocks of 3 a.m. At this hour, the only people watching were insomniacs, the inebriated, the infirm and the lonely. Because when you're sleepless, drunk, sick or sad, it's natural to peer into your darkened kitchen and say, "What I need right now is an electric pasta maker."

The inventors' ingenuity was boundless; they churned out kitchen hits with the predictability of Tin Pan Alley songwriters. The Miracle French Fry Cutter sliced 25 fries at a time. The Egg Genie simultaneously cooked up to seven hard- or soft-boiled eggs. To operate the Salad Shooter, you pushed a trigger and the apparatus excreted uniformly shaped cucumber slices, breadcrumbs or julienned carrots onto a pile of iceberg lettuce, which you had just cut with your Chop-O-Matic.

"Just point and shoot right where you want," the Salad Shooter sales pitch proclaimed. "There are no extra bowls to clean!"

Which is too bad, because you had so many extra bowls, having ordered dozens of them in sizes ranging from 1 tablespoon to 4 quarts, each with numbered, color-coded lids.

These kitchen gizmos and their effervescent sales pitches became the butt of jokes (one of the most famous Saturday Night Live skits featured the "Super Bass-O-Matic '76," in which Dan Akroyd purées an entire raw fish in a blender), but they were wildly popular. Between 1978 and 1984, for example, at least 2 million Ginsu knives were sold in the U.S. alone.

If you believed the ads, these innovations would put us on the vanguard of culinary experimentation. They would make us more prolific, efficient and impressive cooks—stars of the soiree.

Why yes, mustard does spread more evenly if applied with a condiment knife. Thanks for noticing.

You know, I dried those apples myself, using my new five-tray food dehydrator.

Who wants French toast? With the Presto Tilt 'n' Drain Big Griddle, I can fix 12 slices!

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but once the Perfect Meatloaf Pan or Professional Pineapple Slicer arrived, it didn't take long to tire of it. You thought it would be larger. Or shinier. Or better made. It looked nicer on TV, under the bright lights and in the soft, deft hands of the host. Then you discovered you didn't really like meatloaf. You didn't buy that many whole pineapples, preferring to get them cut and canned by a company named Dole.

So off they went—with the apple peelers and peach pitters and popsicle makers—to Goodwill and the Salvation Army, where they gathered dust next to an orphaned Seal-A-Meal.

Finally, your kitchen had been purged of this junk. That is, until the next time you're sleepless, drunk, sick or sad, and your only friend, it seems, is the TV host with the soft, deft hands demonstrating the marvels of a rotating pizza oven. Get your credit card ready. Operators are standing by.

Barry Becher, inventor of the Ginsu knife, died June 22.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Operators are standing by."

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