Let Us Now Praise Famous Appliances

Approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes

2005 has been a year to replace some commonplace, but indispensable, household items.
Until now I have been blessed in two ways with regard to consumer behavior, my own that is.

First off, I was somehow imbued with a high regard for quality of workmanship. Aspects of this point of view derive no doubt from my father. He was, if nothing else, an admirer of fine things. An admirer mainly, as he was not naturally disposed to easy acquisition of such things—translation: he was a Russian immigrant, a Jew to boot, and he wasn’t rich. Nor was anyone else in the family, at least not once they stepped off the boat at Ellis Island in 1923, fresh from a sea cruise from the port of Buenos Aires.

This sterling object, actually it’s chrome, was acquired new by my father sometime in the mid-50s at a medical convention. He was sales manager of an over-the-counter pharmaceutical products company and often on the road, helping man the company booth while pitching the virtues of the company’s products and doling out samples in tiny tubes with crimped ends and screw-on tops—these being the days before, I have only one word to say to you, "plastics." Then, as now, members of the medical profession had acquisitive instincts, high incomes (to indulge those instincts) and, among the males, a taste for gadgetry. In the grand tradition of Great American Salesmanship, many companies, at some several removes from the strict salutary precincts of the ward and the laboratory, nevertheless availed themselves of exhibition space at the going rate, and hawked their wares as well. It is true that the products of the Waring company, makers of very fine, very sturdy, high powered blenders and mixing machines could be found in the laboratories of hospitals and schools of medicine, if not, as well, in the compounding chambers of the local apothecary—being ideal to pulverize, puree, and blend whatever nostrum, or biological sample, as the case may be. The ne plus ultra of their machines was the specimen you see here: same powerful motor, same dependable two-speed switch, same sturdy glass cloverleaf carafe, with integral steel cutter, but with a handsome fully chromed base, for all the luxury of which one was required to part with 50 dollars—a princely sum, even for doctors and sales managers in the mid-1950s, yet always offered (demonstrating the wisdom of Waring marketing strategy) at a substantially discounted "show" price. I remember my father bringing this home and proudly unpacking it in our kitchen, where it had pride of place.

It was mainly used for years, as I recall, on the rare occasions that my father, a licenced pharmacist, was called upon to concoct some old formula, the compounding of which younger druggists in the local apothecary had never been taught. In the fullness of time, and as the chrome pitted microscopically, and the cloverleaf (it’s trademarked by Waring, incidentally; a fact that is still touted) carafe developed a crack, I inherited the device, which I had coveted for utterly inchoate reasons (such a display of negative capability should have made plain to one and all that I was doomed to an artistic temperament). I thought once it might have had something to do with validating my incredibly short-lived ambitions to become a doctor—my father’s heart swelled, not unhealthily—and that perhaps through some misbegotten association between expensive chromed kitchen gadgets and the arcane impedimenta of the medical arts.

Miraculously, I found a replacement for the carafe, and have used this wonderful monster through the course of three marriages in 34 years, and hundreds of pureed concoctions, ranging from frozen daiquiris to the smoothies my wife craved through her cancer treatment, to the roasted parsnip and apple soup recipe I re-engineered from the dish served at Casblanca in Harvard Square. It was the preparation of the latter, which required extended periods of pulverization at the high speed setting, that convinced me, sadly, that this too was due for retirement.

The second way in which I have been blessed is with the sense that if it hasn’t worn out, and if it does a good job, there’s no reason to replace it. This is a rule that works better with appliances, and perhaps other less interactive furniture, at least furniture that neither plugs in to an electrical outlet, or requires the regular replacement of consumable parts and components. This gift, if such it is, brings with it an obligation: the obligation to choose one’s possessions wisely and, if they are to be put into regular service (with an emphasis of all the words that derive from or at least are cognative of "regular," like regularity, regulate, or, for those with an etymological bent: "plays by the rules—you know? regulations" and "canonical," as in, endorsed by the Pope who, as we all know, is infallible.
In short, it has been my penchant when I can afford to do so, to buy something that will work well, last a long time, do its job, and serve useful life.

This is the least we should, and the most we can, expect of our appliances, we of this nation of appliances. Plug it in, turn it on, use it, shut it off. No more instruction than that.

Hence, a 50 year-old blender is on the verge of biting the dust. it’s still sold, as the heritage model, or some such, but the base is different, if still chromed, and it has lost its art-deco-in-its-death-throes stylistic charm—also the cloverleaf carafe, in a capitulation to more recent versions of convenience and the appearance of greater control, now sports a molded handle; thereby obviating—obliterating actually—the unassailable utilitarian elegance of the cloverlead design in the first place: four different handles built-in so it can be grabbed from any angle, and the gentle curve was designed to fit the hand, while at the same time affording a grip on the carafe itself, rather than an appended graceless loop of thin, and therefore delicate, glass.

The trick now is, as well as finding a worthy substitute, somehow to keep in mind by other means the thoughts and recollections, the memories and reminiscent emotional states, as opposed to direct recall of specific incidents, elicited every time I hauled this ungainly object from the small appliance cupboard—thoughts of my father and his partricular apothecary’s preciseness and fastidiousness (I have forced myself to follow my own prescriptions, my recipes, barely ever measuring a thing), and the ceremonial way he seemed to approach the use of any such device, as if it contained powers conferred by the gods and, through whose agency, which he was privileged to harness. My father was born in 1905 in rural Russia and electricity may have been an iffy proposition, if it was any proposition whatsoever, during his childhood.

I get my taste for fine things (not just caviar and champagne, but fine workmanship on products that last, and which are beautiful to look at when not in use, or even when in use, though watching the blender in action was a rare indulgence) from my father. But I am left to wonder, where did he learn it? My uncle, his younger brother, had it also, which suggests a genetic root. I suspect though it was a recessive trait.

Whatever the source, it has served me well, certainly at least until this banner year, when we have replaced, in succession: a toaster: the first of the single slot models, and hence very modern, and also very 70s, with its pristine white plastic housing adorned only by a highly graphic stylized logotype, typographic at that, in a brilliant carmine red. It made great toast for 30 years, took fat slices and thin, and was easy to clean. That one-slot design meant a small footprint on the dengerously small countertop spaces in my last three kitchens. It finally stopped toasting. We’ve replaced it with a Braun single slot toaster, no longer modernistic, but with a slight frisson of post-modern Buck Rogerish swoopiness, all in matte stainless steel, but with glowing multi-colored lights, slab shaped that signal the most basic of status conditions. As few moving parts as its predecessor, and with the singular improvement of the addition of a levered lowering bar, which also allows cantilevering smaller toasted objects above the level of the yawning mouth. It’s bigger, but not by much, so there’s a net retention of counter space, and little disruption of now imprinted motor skills. 30 years though, for a toaster, that will be hard to beat.

We finally gave in and replaced our refrigerator, which was a classic generic branded ice box, with the minimal modicum of features that made it competitive. A GE, of course (it was either that or Fridgidaire it always seems), and it was already used when I bought the condo 20 years ago.

I always hear about rules concerning what you take with you and what you leave in the way of appliances (I guess there are, in fact, statutes to this effect), but if memory serves, you leave the stove, which usually has a gas pipe plumbed into it, and remove the refrigerator. Well, I needed a refrigerator, and it seemed like a dumb custom, and it was only five, well maybe six or seven, years old at the time.

By the time we gave in, it was expelling puddles from deep within itself, onto the tiled floor of our kitchen and seemingly infinitely replenished from reservoirs of water, always with some beige growth on it that collected between cleanings, that collected in pools beneath the produce bins. No adjustments of the temperature and humidity controls altered the cooling and keeping capabilities. Sometimes liquids and semi-solids froze within the refrigerator compartment, but only in the summer, and this seemed to signify sufficient cold was still possible.

It had a frost-free freezer, which remained so to the end. Taken for granted by most users I’m sure, it was always a source of wonder and pride (and gratitude) to this writer. I still have memories quite fresh of the ordeal required of Peggy, our "cleaning woman" in the tenement apartment we occupied, whenever the cubic foot-and-a-half sized freezer compartment frosted over, encasing the perishables in an adamantine grayish casket of ice.

My guess is the former owner bought it at Sears, on sale, for several hundred dollars. I don’t know how long he expected it to last him (he and his wife moved from here to a 3,000 square foot house in Winchester, one of one of the derivative benefits of making partner at Ropes & Gray, the white show law firm downtown).

That old GE didn’t disgrace him. It lasted him what it lasted him, let’s say six years, and it lasted us 20, including the exciting last few when we spoke often of its replacement, took several "serious" shopping trips, slammed shut a few doors, and kicked a few kick panels and dent proof stainless doors, and wondered if we would, in fact, be forced to make an emergency purpose before getting off our asses and giving in to the inevitable.
2005, the year of the inevitable.

It took six hours to empty the old refrigerator, including the time to pack perishables into insulated freezer bags and coolers, and to dispose of and clean out the containers for a variety of foods we had collected, and which filled two 33 gallon plastic trash bags. It took 20 minutes to place everything that was left in the new box. Also simple. No ice maker (this would be too much for this Bronx boy to accept as suitable to his worth, not as a bank customer, but as a humble human being). Only a single temperature control—electronic it’s true, but simple to the point of possibly being useful aboard major U.S. weaponry. No more moving parts than necessary. The doors move, open and closed, and the freezer drawers siide, on simple runners. A single light in the refirgerator compartment.

We had two veterans of the coffee wars see either retirement this, the first year of George W. Bush’s second term, retirement or, well, a premature demise.

We’ve replaced a Krups automatic drip coffee maker for the second time in this marriage alone. We’re trying a new brand, one which seems to take itself very seriously in the design and reputation of its products, called Capresso. So far, so good. It makes very good coffee, and it does it very much faster than the previous models (the latest of which died after only ten years of service—what is happening to quality?)

We trusted the Capresso brand to replace as well another estimable war horse from our stable of domestic beasts of all work. We retired a Braun burr-grind coffee grinder, originally a wedding present for one of my more youthful unions, and which ground many a pot-full of beans, morning after morning, for a total, I’m embarrassed to say, of about ten thousand mornings. Like faithful Dobbin, we let that brave little Braun (with its spare design, deservedly the winner, with the entire line of appliances it came from, from the days that Dieter Rams, one of the gods of modernist industrial design, we head of design at Braun, and they just kept turning out a succession of very very dandy small appliances, clocks, and eventually hand calculators and other gadgets that presaged the current Golden Age of gizmos for technology gluttons) go to pasture with dignity, rather than the ignominy of stopping mid-bean, never to revive, and three measures short of a pot.

A new grinder, with the same specification: simplicity, minimal moving parts, an on-off switch, and heavy-duty burr wheels, now sits, squat and rounded, but so black as to brood in moody elegance—sort of a cross between R2-D2 and Darth Vader. But Imperial centurion or rebel, it does the job. So far.

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