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Slate on Design: In Praise of Wooden Spoon

(c) 2012, Slate.

There are few things I absolutely have to have in a kitchen. I don't need fancy pots (though Le Creuset makes some beautiful ones), or impressive tools I will rarely use (though I began asking for a blowtorch every Christmas at age 12), or single-use gadgets like avocado slicers or mango pitters (you already own these — they're called knives).

In fact, to feel confident that I can put together a good meal using whatever's around, all I really need is some garlic, a little olive oil and a wooden spoon.

Since the moment of its invention, the wooden spoon has been integral to an impressive variety of cultural traditions. According to Charles Panati in “Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things,” wooden spoons have been uncovered alongside gold and silver versions in the tombs of ancient Egyptians, indicating that their owners saw them as useful enough to be considered essential even in the afterlife.

In late 18th-century Britain, wooden spoons were handed out as booby prizes to students with the worst academic performances; later, they were instead bestowed upon the most popular person in a class.

As long and varied as its history is, the wooden spoon's versatility and durability is what makes it worth using. Wooden spoons don't quickly heat to scalding temperatures, chemically react with acidic foods, or scratch pots and bowls, as their metal counterparts do. They don't melt or leach chemicals or strange tastes into hot foods as plastic does.

It lasts forever, looks equally at home on a stovetop as on a beautifully set family-style table, and like Helen Mirren, just gets better-looking with age.

Why do people prefer non-wooden spoons? There are a few concerns associated with wooden spoons, but none of them hold water.

For instance, many people worry that wooden spoons harbor bacteria and are therefore more likely to contaminate your food than plastic or metal spoons. It's true that if you don't properly clean your wooden spoon, it will retain bacteria — but so will any other type of spoon.

Thoroughly cleaning any utensil, wood or not, after it's been in contact with raw meat, poultry or fish is the only sure way to prevent contamination, according to Angela Fraser, an associate professor and food safety specialist at Clemson University. Commercial kitchens sanitize wooden utensils with either soap and scalding water or a weak bleach solution, the latter of which is a bit extreme for home kitchens.

The easiest way for laypeople to sanitize wood that's been in contact with raw meats is to put it in the dishwasher. Most dishwashers now have a high-temperature final rinse that will kill any residual bacteria that survived the detergent. Let wooden spoons air-dry after washing to ensure they are completely clean (dishtowels can re-contaminate wood and don't thoroughly dry it), and you'll have no reason to fear food-borne illness.

But, you're thinking, doesn't wood retain the flavor of pungent foods? It can, but there's an easy fix for this: Keep one spoon for savory dishes and one for sweet. (Do this for wooden cutting boards, too, and your apple pie will never taste like onions again.)

While all of these facts already tip the scale in favor of wooden spoons, there is also an emotional and visceral reason to use them that comes from the comforting, familiar way wood feels in your hand — not cold and severe like stainless steel, or dull and characterless like plastic. Wood retains memories in a way that metal and plastic cannot.

When I use the wooden spoon that belonged first to my grandmother, then to my mother, and now to me, I cannot help but feel that I am cooking in the company of all past meals that the spoon has stirred and with the help of all the hands that have done the stirring.

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