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The Surprising Histories of 6 Common Kitchen Items

The kitchen is the heart of our homes. Yet no matter how often we use our culinary tools, most of us rarely stop to think about their origins. But the most common implements of food prep have been through many changes to find their present form, and some of their stories may surprise you. Here are just a few to ponder the next time you need a subject for dinner table conversation.

Straws

Closeup of a glass cup of brightly colored paper straws on a blue background.
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The earliest depiction of a straw is on a seal found in a Sumerian tomb dated to 3,000 BCE. It shows two men using what appear to be straws taking beer from a jar. Beer brewed in Ancient Mesopotamia and Sumeria was unfiltered, so it was full of grain and chaff that floated on the surface. The straw allowed drinkers to access the beer underneath. While most of these ancient straws were made from reeds, museums have examples of extraordinary early straws, including a pure gold straw and a gold and lapis lazuli “drinking tube,” both from the ancient city of Ur in what is now Iraq.

Straws didn’t become popular again until mid-19th-century America. Cocktail culture was thriving and rye straws (made from rye grain) were used to sip spirits from drinks that were packed with ice, fruit, and mint. The sherry cobbler, one of the most popular cocktails of the mid-19th century — made from sherry, sugar, and citrus — became famous in part because a straw was needed to drink it.

Paper straws were first developed at the turn of the 20th century as a “cheap, durable, and unobjectionable alternative to natural straws,” in the words of inventor Martin Stone, for use in soda fountains. They were originally made with waxed manila paper to replicate the color of rye straws. Today, paper straws masquerade in the bright colors of mid-20th-century plastic straws, and some businesses are returning to using straw straws as an environmentally conscious option.

Whisks

Whisked eggs in a bowl with a whisk in it with egg shells on table.
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Up until the 19th century, most women made their own whisks out of bundles of birch sticks. This type of whisk is still used by some chefs for delicate sauces and whipping meringue, and can be a great alternative for whisking on easily damaged non-stick surfaces. Wire whisks, with the classic hot air balloon shape, came into use in the early 19th century, and the first rotary beaters were patented in the 1860s. Featuring one or two interlocking whisks powered by a hand crank, they cut down on the bicep-building work of whisking. These rotary beaters still have their place in the kitchen: They can whisk meringue in half the time of an upright, electrified mixer without leaving dregs of unbeaten egg at the bottom of the bowl.

Grills

Ribeye steaks being grilled on propane grill in a backyard.
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Before the 20th century, outdoor meat cooking was done on massive grills, spits, or in barbecue pits lined with hot coals. Hot, heavy, and time-consuming, this was labor usually performed by groups of men, and in the South, enslaved men. But in 1897, the charcoal briquette was patented, cutting down on time and labor, and in the 1950s, the classic and compact Weber kettle grill was developed. Developed from a Lake Michigan buoy, its lightweight design and stylish shape opened grilling to all.

When retailers began marketing home grills, they targeted men because there was a tradition of men cooking barbecue, but also because men were usually the breadwinners. The thought was that women wouldn’t be interested in buying another cooking appliance when they could just use their stoves. By targeting men, advertisers were finding a new market for cooking, and men were being motivated to feel that cooking outdoors over a fire was a very masculine thing to do. To this day, professional grill masters and pit masters are typically male.

Microwave Ovens

A stainless steel microwave on a countertop.
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Microwaves are electromagnetic waves capable of being bounced off distant objects for radar detection, and microwave ovens actually descended from radar technology developed during WWII. (The first microwave oven was developed after an engineer working on a radar apparatus accidentally melted a chocolate bar in his pocket.) When shot at food, microwave radiation makes water molecules inside the food vibrate, which creates the heat that cooks your dinner.

According to food historian Andrew F. Smith, the earliest microwave oven was bought by a Cleveland restaurant in 1947; the $3,000 price tag made the new tool more or less unattainable for home use. Smaller, more affordable units were developed by the 1960s, but these were found to leak harmful levels of radiation. By the 1970s, designs had improved and microwave ovens were deemed safe. But it took the partnership of the convenience food industry — who created microwave-safe packaging designs — and a slew of instructive newspaper articles, pamphlets, and cookbooks to teach the home cook how to use this new tool. As of 2001, over 90% of U.S. homes had a microwave.

Sporks

A spork in a stainless steel container or lunch box with vegetarian meal on grass.
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Sporks were latecomers to the cutlery game. Spoons made from shells are some of the earliest tools in human history, and knives are descended from the first sharpened weapons (and were considered such personal eating implements that through the 18th century, a person carried their own knife with them at all times). Forks were developed in eighth or ninth century Persia and traveled to Italy by the 16th century. The habit of eating with a fork was prominently displayed by Italian royal Catherine de Medici when she married Henry II of Britain and took her dainty dinner habits with her. Forks were considered luxury items of the delicate rich until silver-plating techniques made flatware affordable to all.

According to Bee Wilson, author of Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, the term “spork” first appeared in a dictionary in 1900, but wasn’t patented until 1970. The spork’s design goes back to a 19th-century “ice cream spoon,” a very fancy silver-plated spork. “Splayds,” a stainless steel spork-and-knife combo, were created in 1943 after the inventor saw “a magazine photo of women awkwardly balancing knives, forks, and plates on their laps at a party,” according to Wilson. Plastics became a more common kitchen staple after WWII, at first intended as reusable, but by the 1960s, disposable culture took over. The spork came into its own as the century progressed, embraced by fast food purveyors as a cheap flatware alternative.

Ice Makers

Open refrigerator showing the automatic ice maker..
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At the beginning of the 19th century, the ice industry was rapidly expanding. New England was the world’s leader in ice production; ice cutters used new horse-drawn blades to cut ice off of frozen lakes. The ice was insulated in ice houses, and could stay frozen until the following October. According to food historian Jeri Quinzio in her book Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making, by 1800 ice was being shipped to the West Indies, and in 1833, a Boston ice merchant began making regular shipments to Calcutta.

Ice became cheap and readily available by the mid-19th century, which spurred an abundance of iced drinks. The ice would have been brought into bars, soda fountains, or ice cream parlors in large blocks and skillfully chopped into different shapes by the resident bartender.

The first mechanical ice-maker was patented in 1851, and was designed “to convert water into ice artificially by absorbing its heat of liquefaction with expanding air.” Initially, the machine was meant to help treat yellow fever patients. Ice makers were first added to consumer refrigerators and freezers in 1953, and the fridge-door ice dispenser we're familiar with today was introduced in 1965 by Frigidaire.

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