28 March, 2010

Vintage Sunday: Cheese Grater

Years ago, I was at an estate sale in town.  It was on a small and quiet side street, at a modest little house on a small town lot.  There was a neatly tended garden alongside the house, and an old grape arbor made from iron pipes by the back door.  I found several wonderful and hard-to-find old kitchen gadgets for sale, and this cheese grater was one of them.

I remember my grandmother having a grater just like this, to process hard Italian table cheeses for cooking and pasta.  Chunks of cheese go into the throat at the top, and turning the handle rotates a perforated drum against which the cheese is grated.  Even though it's manually operated, it makes quick work of a block of cheese.  I usually grate enough at one time to fill a plastic deli tub so I don't have to drag it out very often, but every time I do I'm glad I have it.  It's one of those unique and handy tools that I'll probably hand down to my daughter when the time comes.

Every time I  use that grater,  I think of the woman from whose estate it came.  I never met her when she lived, nor even found out her name.  I knew her only from the items arrayed on the long tables in front of her house, and the furnishings and linens for sale inside.  She must have been quite a cook.  The canning jars, kettles, and tools spoke of jams and preserves and quarts of tomatoes.  She made her own pasta, judging from the heavy cast-aluminum hand-cranked pasta mill.  And she had dozens of recipes, written out in a small notebook, in Italian.

I bought a lot of the kitchenware that day - the family was letting it go at fire sale prices, and most of it was too cool and too useful for me to pass up.  I paid for the boxes of stuff, and the woman running the sale helped me carry them out to my truck.  As we put the boxes in the back, she tossed her grandmother's handwritten recipe notebook into one of the boxes.  

"Are you sure you want to throw that in?  It looks like those are your family recipes.  You might not want to part with them."

"Yeah, right," she said.  "None of us do any cooking.  I'm really glad you came along and bought all that kitchen junk.  We were afraid we'd have to throw it out."

"Um...thanks.  See ya," I replied.  What are you supposed to say to someone's casual disdain for their own family heritage?

So...thanks, nonna, whoever you were.  Some of your stuff found a good home.


Unknown said...

nice post, did you keep the recipe book? Did you ever translate it or try any of them?

Eating The Road said...

I was wondering the same. Have you used any of the recipes? Anything unusually good...or strange?

Christina said...

Just finished cleaning out my parents' apartment (they are in assisted living facilities) and I was the claimant to my mother's handwritten recipe book from when her mother was teaching her to cook. Nothing fantastic as far as recipes goes, but it was neat to have it as a remembrance of my mom. What I'd give for something from my Polish grandmother! Someday these folks will regret what they have lost from their ancestors..

tree ocean said...

I am the recipe heiress in my family. My mother's and her mothers, and the cookie cutters and pans and silver and china. I regularly refer to my granmother's battered copy of the Rumford cookbook circ 1920-somthing for griddlecakes and waffles...yum

awesome cheese grater!

Dave said...

Gene and ETR, yes, I still have the notebook. There are parts I'm still trying to decypher; I don't speak much Italian and in places her handwriting is hard to read.

Many of the recipes are fairly standard and don't differ that much from the way my mother and grandmother did things. A lot of them don't have measurements in the traditional sense of the word (for example, her recipe for sausage includes "fennel seed until it's just right."

There's nothing really unusual or strange, but there are some little tips and hints here and there that are obviously "kitchen secrets" that gave her cooking its own spin.

Christina: I married into a Polish family, and because I enjoyed the company of my wife's many elderly aunts (and always made time for them when they needed someone to do an odd job or repair around the house) I was quickly "adopted." One of my wife's grandaunts gave me a bundle of handwritten recipes bound with an elastic band - traditional recipes for holiday foods and special dishes that had never been shared with anyone since she herself had gotten them from her mother. As she handed them over, she said, "I've never given these to anyone in the family but you - because I know you'll use them."

Eric M said...

nothing is quite so sad as going to an estate sale run by a family full of ingrates. A relic like that recipe book is the kind of thing you cherish - especially in an italian family! Shame on all of them.

Unknown said...

Eric- here here! This makes me so sad.......50 lashes with wet bucatini for those folks!

I treasure the small box of recipe cards from my Grandmother- I even put the cards in plastic sleeves. I was lucky enough to receive quite a few of her kitchen things- we fight over this old alumnium kettle with a battered wood handle. The tulip bowls, the clamp on meat grinder and no one touches the potato ricer!

And don't get me started on the cast iron fry pans!

Folks should treasure these things!


Marleen said...

Hi. I really enjoy your website. I have this same cheese grater that I want to sell; I never use it, though I probably should. Would you happen to know an approximate worth, as I have no idea. Thank you.

Dave said...

Marleen: I don't know an exact value, but based on what I've seen in antique shops and flea markets, it's worth anywhere from $15 to $25 dollars.

Thanks for the note!

Spatula212 said...

I came across the same type of situation about a week ago, I live in a small town in Ohio called "seville", population 2200, famous for the seville Giants, (famous, *snicker*). Lots of "old timers" and century homes, just an awesome place to be, and when there is an estate sale, I make sure I am there on the first, and the last days. I was at a sale on the last day, when I came across canning jars for 16 for a quarter, I was so excited I almost left right away, to share my find with the wife, but I stayed and looked, making small purchases here and there, making trip after trip to the truck, then I came across a fairly good sized box of books, the top 3 were old "Ball Blue books" from the 40s and later, when I picked those up, to ask about a price, I saw a 8 x 10 notebook, looking very old, FULL of handwritten recipes, under it, I found another, and another, I had 6 handwritten recipe books, full of small clippings from newspapers, and books, under those, about 2 dozen cookbooks, with nothing newer than 1965! I grabbed the whole box, and with a sinking stomach, I winced while I asked "how much". Much to my surprise, she responded with "25 cents for the whole box, I should pay you for taking them" I almost fainted! This was someones LIFE! These books were destined to be passed down from mother to daughter, but the "modern age" and a lack of respect for the old ways, caused them to become waste. Such a shame for them, but such a find for me! I have been studying them, trying to get into her style, because the books are put together very haphazardly, puddings, next to beef, next to seafood. I feel good about having the books, because I WILL pass them down to my daughters and sons, and this woman, whoever she was, will get the respect all her hard work deserved.