Chapter Three: The Knives are All Right.

As someone who cooks food with depressing regularity, and, therefore, uses knives — sharp, scary, dangerous knives — on a daily basis, I couldn’t go indefinitely without decent, workable knife storage. Storing them in a drawer: not a viable option, according to both my husband and me. There was no point in hoping that my husband would somehow miraculously come around to the idea that a magnet strip on the wall was the best way to store our knives. The knife block was a nuisance and a failure; the (ahem) novel Book-Based solution was interesting, but as implemented by me, a failure. I had to devise a countertop solution that wouldn’t make me or my husband crazy and would still be a safe, reliable, reasonably attractice way to store the knives. A Google search about DIY knife storage — which showed me the Book-Based Solution — also showed me a Vase-Based Solution. This seemed like a good avenue to pursue; and by this point, I was up for anything. So I began keeping my eyes peeled at tag sales, looking for vases that would work to hold knives. What I needed was at least two, and probably three, glass vessels that didn’t curve in at the top (as so many vases do). They needed to be wide-mouthed vases easily washed, that would be big enough to hold even wide blades of chef’s knives.

People are always getting rid of vases when they move, probably ’cause they’re a pain in the ass to pack. I knew if I just roamed the streets of my neighborhood, I’d eventually find exactly what I wanted. And then one day a Facebook post in a group I’m part of brought me what I needed.

It’s a local group called Curb Alert and it lets folks know when someone’s put some cool item out on the street free for the taking. Living in a college town, this is quite common. Someone’s moving and they can’t take all their stuff;  they’ll put out boxes of things — often kitchen equipment, but it could be anything — books, baby gear, stereo equipment  pieces of furniture — tape up a sign saying  “FREE STUFF” and move on. Anyone who’s lived in this town has benefitted from this system: it’s an easy way to get rid of things you don’t want, and it’s an easy way to acquire things you might actually need. Yes, there is furniture in my house that’s come to us via the curb; and if you’ve eaten at my house, you’ve probably eaten from pots or plates that I’ve acquired in this manner. I realize that many people would find this appalling. I truly don’t give a crap. It’s a beautiful little ecosystem and I love it.

So when a hipster couple across the street from me began to post photograph after photograph — Free stuff! Come and get it! — I hustled out to the sidewalk. It was late July. This couple had lived in their apartment for several years, long enough to acquire all sorts of housewares, but they were moving to North Carolina, via U-Haul, and just couldn’t take everything with them. I walked across the street and within about two minutes I had snagged three clear glass vessels. Two of them were vases. One of them was some kind of special mixology carafe marketed by St. Germain — an odd shape, rather narrow but quite tall — and though I didn’t really want an ad for St. Germain in my kitchen, I knew immediately that it would be the perfect thing to hold my bread knife. I took home my three pieces, practically chortling at how easy this was, and I washed them and dried them. I took a piece of very old, soft, flannel (a pillowcase that had gotten holey, which I’d converted into rags) and folded up small squares to line the bottom of each piece — I didn’t want to have the tips of the knives hitting glass — and then I filled them with white rice. (White rice is cheap enough, I reasoned, that even if this experiment failed, it wouldn’t be much of a loss. Furthermore, since I’d cleaned the vessels so well, there wouldn’t be any reason I couldn’t actually cook the rice, should we decide against the Vase-Based Solution.)

The glass vases are very different in shape and so it was easy to determine which knives would go into which piece. The tallest, plainest one was perfect for the three chef’s knives; the St. Germain decanter was for the bread knife; and it turned out the short, squat one was very happy to host my numerous paring knives and the one oddball small serrated knife I like to have around. Installed in these containers, only one handle stuck up so high that I could not nestle the vases on the kitchen counter under the shelf where we keep our spices. Sadly, the handle of my left-handed bread knife is too long to allow the knife to fit comfortably in that space (the handle is about 1/2″ longer than the other bread knife’s handle); but I don’t mind keeping that in a sleeve in the kitchen drawer, as I only use it once a week at Shabbat. But nine knives out of ten fit well: I declared the initial set-up a success.

I’ve now had the knives in the Vase System for four months. There are a number of good things about this admittedly odd knife storage system. One is that it doesn’t take up space in the same way the knife block did. It’s space, to be sure, but the way the space is allocated bothers me less. For example: when I wanted to wash the whole countertop (as I do after working with some really messy dough, for example), moving the knife block with the knives in it was always kind of scary. With these vases, it’s easy. Each vase can be easily lifted and set down somewhere else, and I don’t feel like I’m risking lopping a hand off by accident doing so.

In the case of the short knives, I don’t have to move the vase at all to get out the knife I want to use; and with the taller knives, I find pulling the decanter out to get a knife is no big deal. I also like that this system keeps the blades in a very dry place. I wash and dry my knives by hand but any residual dampness in a wooden handle will be absorbed by the rice, or evaporate (with the knife block, I was always fretting to myself about wood possibly getting wet and staying wet and getting gross as a result).

The more aesthetically-aware types who use the Vase Solution and want to have the rice look like something other than rice will find that there are many ways to fill the vases and have this system work. Some people use dry beans — which come in many attractive colors and look cute. Some people use bamboo skewers instead of foodstuffs, which makes a great deal of sense, and I will probably acquire a couple hundred skewers one of these days to allay my concerns about rice and mealworms (we’ve not had any trouble, but we are always on the lookout). One could dye the rice to make it match one’s kitchen decor, but that’s a little too too for me to bother with.

I can easily see that most people would not find this an acceptable knife storage system. However, given my strong feelings regarding how unacceptable the conventional options are, I really don’t give a hoot. And people who are, like me, endlessly annoyed by the more conventional options might give this one some thought. Because, as I say, it’s been a few months, and so far so good. This is a huge improvement over the daily misery I felt every time I looked at the knife block — which, I admit, I kept, out of a nagging sense of fear that I’d need it again if my other knife solutions failed.

I am confident enough about the vase solution that one of these days I may post my own Curb Alert on Facebook: Knife block out on the sidewalk, yours for the taking. 

Knife Storage is a Pain in the Ass. Chapter 2: In Which the Hausfrau Got Slightly Crafty

The hausfrau is not the sort of person who mucks around with hot glue guns or sews cunning aprons from old pillowcases. It would be nice, but whatever. But back in May, a friend on Facebook brought to my attention a knife storage system that I thought even I could handle making. The idea was, you’d take a few old, fat books you didn’t need to read anymore, and use them as knife blocks. I immediately grasped the sense behind this plan, and thought, “I’m gonna give that a roll.” I went and got three very old cookbooks, used damp string and rubber bands to tie them shut very tightly, and started jabbing knives into the text blocks. For the shorter knives, the paring knives, this system worked very well. But, I wondered, was I doing damage to the knives? (The resale value of these books was zilch; I wasn’t going to use valuable books for a project like this. The knives, on the other hand: I didn’t want to deal with having to replace knives because I’d ruined them on a stupid pseudo-crafty kitchen project.)

I went to my computer and emailed a nice young man in the neighborhood who is a professional knife sharpener. His name is Harper. I met him last year or maybe two years ago now, when I heard that he would be sharpening knives at a farmer’s market. I had, at the time, recently realized that my knives were all in really unforgivably awful condition. We have an electric knife sharpener, and I like it, but it was clear to me that most of my knives needed professional help. I brought Harper most of my knives, hoping for the best, and was more than happily surprised. Every knife he worked on was a pleasure to use afterward. With these rejuvenated knives, I got more attuned to using my sharpener a little more regularly, and I started sending as much business as I could toward Harper’s stand at the farmer’s market.

Harper is a gentle eccentric, it seems to me — I expect his family worries about him — but he is someone I’m always happy to run into around the neighborhood. I think he goes to Yale, but can often be seen hanging around with his wonderful dog Lola. I don’t know how he came to be a knife and tool sharpener, but he’s definitely good at it, and, I learned, he is friendly about it. I know this because I’ve chatted with him many times, on the street.  When I got this idea about the book knife block in my head, I sent him an email. I was afraid he might think I was insane, or a moron, but I figured, “You know someone who has the knowledge you need access to; just ask him, maybe he’ll write back.” I wrote, basically, “Dear Harper, Is this book-knife block thing an incredibly stupid idea, or a perfectly ok idea? Is it gonna hurt the knives? Is there some fatal flaw I’m not thinking of? Please advise. Love, The Hausfrau.”  I was a little more formal than that, actually, but not much.

To my surprise, Harper wrote back pretty quickly. He assured me that the issues I had asked about — would the ink possibly harm the blades? would the act of putting the knife into the text block repeatedly dull the blade? — would not be problems. We had a nice little back and forth, agreeing that some book pages would inevitably get crushed or slashed by moving the knives in and out of the block; we discussed the question of top-heaviness, and whether or not the “block” should be put through a bandsaw to angle the bottom of it slightly and make it a little more stable. He even offered to help me out with this, which was really nice of him.

My husband came home and saw the “knife block” on the counter and was, to put it mildly, skeptical. He didn’t actually say, “That’s an incredibly dumb idea,” but he clearly believed it was.

We agreed to live with the system for a little while to see how it would work out. After about six weeks, I had feelings on the matter; if my husband did, he never voiced them (which means he did not approve, but had better things to pick arguments about with me).  The problems were subtle but definite. For one thing, the widely varying lengths and sizes of our knives meant that sometimes a knife would fit nicely into a book; in fact, one old book held most of the smaller knives quite nicely. But for chef’s knives, it would have required a lot of books — and, more significantly, a lot of counter space — to make the system work well. Also, the books had to be pulled out from their home on the counter before I could pull out the knives, which was a nuisance. I discussed with Harper the idea of sawing off the bottoms of the books to angle them slightly and make them sit in a fashion more like a traditional knife block; he offered to saw the books for me since, for some reason, he has easy access to a bandsaw. But it just didn’t seem worth it to me. I decided that the system was cute but for a household with very limited countertop space, too flawed. I decided to continue my hunt for a better knife storage system, and thought back to the time I had spent doing Google searches for terms like “DIY Knife Block.”

One website showed me a kind of knife block that wasn’t a block but was some kind of silicone gizmo that looked like very tall astroturf; you slid the knives into the “blades of grass” and it supported the knives safely. This seemed like a clever idea, but I didn’t relish the idea of having to clean out such a gadget (and it was, in the end, no more than that — a gadget, and not a DIY one at all).

A similar idea held a little more weight with me. This was a concept in which you take a tallish wooden box without a lid, fill it with bamboo skewers, and keep the knives by sliding them in among the skewers. Depending on how nice the wooden box is, this could be a rather attractive way to handle knife storage. But I didn’t want to think about acquiring a handsome wooden box, and, I knew that I’d need one hell of a big wooden box to accommodate my knives, and I didn’t want any one thing that big on my countertop. (That’s part of what I hated about the original wooden knife block to begin with.)

It was the next concept that stuck with me. The next concept involved using vases and raw rice or raw beans. I thought, “Vases and rice are easy to obtain. Furthermore, it requires zero skill to set this up. Note to self: start poking around tag sales for cheap vases.”

I kept the knives in the books on the countertop, but secretly began my hunt. August is one of the big tag sale seasons in my neighborhood: I knew I wouldn’t have to  wait long to put my plan into action.

Knife Storage is a Pain in the Ass. Chapter One: in which we cannot agree on anything, and I bitch about knife blocks.

Problem: if you have a kitchen, you probably have sharp knives that have to be stored somehow.
Problem: if you share a kitchen with someone, they probably feel that the way you want to store the knives is unacceptable, and the way they want to store the knives is equally unacceptable to you.

I am of the school that believes that knives are best stored on the wall, on a span of magnetic strip. For many years, I lined strong magnets on the wall of the fridge that was adjacent to the short span of counter next to our stove. I found this a completely wonderful system for many reasons. It kept the knives at hand; it kept the knives out of the way of children and other people who shouldn’t handle knives (only grownups could reach this place); and it was just a neat, clean way to store items that would otherwise take up precious horizontal storage space, of which we had essentially none. We had almost no counters in our kitchen — I mean, there were 18″ of counter space next to the stove, and that was that — and similarly very little in the way of drawer storage. Magnets on the side of the fridge struck me, to be honest, as quite ingenious.

My husband felt differently. He essentially felt that storing the knives this way would result in all of us being maimed or killed.

When we moved to our current residence, we began a large-scale discussions that continued for two and a half years as we designed the kitchen we planned to build. “Where are we going to store the knives?” My husband initially expressed interest in one of those special knife-drawer designs people seem to like, but I found it fussy and a needless expense. What’s more, I don’t like the idea of having to open a drawer to get at a knife. When, at an estate sale, I found a knife block for $5, I bought the knife block and lugged it home. “When the kitchen is done, we can use this,” I said. My husband looked pleased. Though it was awkward to fit our ragtag collection of knives into this block, it could be done.

But the knife block presented numerous challenges from Day One. For one thing, when I got it home from the estate sale, I felt honor bound to clean it. It was dirty, after all, and I was going to put my knives in it: it would obviously be ideal for it to to not be completely fucking filthy.

Cleaning a knife block is not the easiest thing in the world. I mean, it’s not that cleaning it is precisely difficult — it requires less skill than cutting a good jack o’ lantern — but it requires patience to do it thoroughly and well. I used a lot of soapy water, and vinegar, and rags, and pipe cleaners. Years of accumulated layers of dust and grease had definitely left their marks on this thing. But I got it clean.  I took it out on the balcony to rest in the sunshine, and then I let the damn thing sit and sit and sit for several days before I decided the wood was dry enough.

Then, we arrived at another inevitable problem: it took me about half an hour to figure out how to arrange our motley knife collection in the limited slots and spaces of the block.

I managed to set it up so that the system was good enough. No one would be automatically harmed as the result of this knife block sitting in our kitchen. But it wasn’t great. There were only two slots that could hold chef’s knives, and we have three such knives that we use regularly. There’s a total of eleven knives that I want to have right at hand all the time. The knife block could store about half of them comfortably. I managed to get ten of them in safely, but it took some creative thinking. (The 11th knife, my left-handed serrated knife, I settled with keeping in a sheath in a drawer under the workspace.)

I spent probably an hour fiddling around with all the knives and the block. It was a process not unlike arranging one’s furniture in a new apartment. I learned that the chef’s knives couldn’t rest in the block the way knives always do in photos, with the edge of the blade facing down, handle ready to be grabbed. Our knives, placed just so, became wobbly and dangerously unbalanced; the handles were not designed in a manner that fit well with this block. I figured out that if I turned them so the edges of the blades faced up, the knives in vertical slots would be relatively stable, and that what’s more, the edges would stay sharper that way. I was able to nestle two chef’s knives into one vertical slot in this manner; it wasn’t perfect, but it was okay.

The horizontal slots in the block, which is where I’d’ve kept the chefs knives, ideally, were too narrow for those blades; instead, the relatively narrow-bladed, serrated bread knives went there. All the little paring knives went willy-nilly, two to a slot, in the other horizontal spaces, and the spot where the honing steel should go was where I kept an old favorite, a skinny little serrated knife that looks like junk but slices tomatoes and onions into perfect thin slices really well.

So the knives were housed, if imperfectly; but we lived with it. Over time, the top of the block collected dust, and the whole thing annoyed me as it took up a surprising amount of real estate on the kitchen counter. The system worked, technically, but I hated it. I hated this knife block, as I have always hated all knife blocks, and I never stopped thinking, “What would be a better way to handle this situation?”

After three years, someone posted an image to my Facebook wall. It was a knife block someone had made out of old books. I looked at the picture and I began to think.

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