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Cook's tour: A gadget (or three) for every kitchen task

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OXO International's innovative one-handed salad spinner. (Courtesy of United States Patent and Trademark Office.)

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Chef'n inventor David Holcomb's shrimp deveiner. (Courtesy of United States Patent and Trademark Office.)

For years, Wendy Ries of Saskatchewan, Canada, would chop up lettuce for salads, miffed that the left-over end of the lettuce head would inevitably turn partly brown. Convinced the lettuce was oxidizing from being cut with a metal knife, her husband George invented the world's first "lettuce knife," which consists of a sharply serrated blade made of plastic.

"You can cut lettuce with the lettuce knife and leave it for a week and it won't turn brown," he said

Fifteen years later, the Rieses sell tens of thousands of their patented lettuce knives every year, each manufactured in their hometown of Humboldt. Reis attributed his urge to invent the knife to being raised in such a remote Canadian province, which is populated, he said, by "very inventive people, where everyone has had to make their own stuff for generations."

However the inventions are arrived at, kitchen supply stores these days display a plethora of other unique gadgets: citrus zesters, reamers, squeezers and peelers; flat whisks, egg whisks and collapsible whisks; avocado slicers, papaya scoops and salad spinners.

With thousands of items on the market, the number and variety of kitchen tools available to novice chefs and gourmands alike is extraordinary. According to the trade magazine Home World Business, the kitchen gadget industry in the United States is worth just under $1 billion a year.

“With the growth of interest in cooking and food over the past few decades,” said Lisa McManus, senior editor of Cook’s Illustrated magazine in Boston, “has come a similar growth in kitchen gadgets to appeal to home cooks.”

The surge of innovation in kitchen tool inventions is also the result of new technologies: computer-assisted design processes and breakthroughs in the use of materials such as soft plastics and heat-resistant rubbers, according to Matthew Bird, who worked in design manufacturing for 15 years and now owns The Curatorium, a gift shop in Providence, R.I.

“New materials and new processes lead to new shapes that you couldn't make before,” said Bird. For example, companies like OXO International use computer renderings and stereolithography--a production technology that used lasers to create 3-D polyurethrane models--to create kitchen gadgets like the one-handed salad spinner.

Kitchen gadgets have a long and rich history. According to some accounts, over 500 patents for apple peelers were submitted to the United States Patent and Trademark Office in the 1800s. Some gadgets, like the eggbeater, have a particular hold on inventors’ imaginations.

In “The Eggbeater Chronicles,” (Thornton, 1999), author Don Thornton details the history of this kitchen utensil through descriptions and pictures of 700 different eggbeater designs, including water-powered, rotary cranks and glass plunger models.

According to Richard J. Apley, a patent lawyer in Arlington, Va., and former director at the United States patent office, the number of kitchen gadget inventions is astonishing in part because they are generally so low-tech.

For instance, there are over 12,000 registered patents in the United States just for cutlery--a field that includes can-openers, vegetable peelers and forks, said Apley. That number is comparable to all the hand-held tools patented since 1790, when the patent office first opened. “How many ways can you think of making a fork?” asks Apley.

In spite of kitchen gadgetry’s current popularity, the wizards behind these inventions rarely go down in the history books, even though many of their creations are ones we can’t live without (corkscrews) or display ingenious design efficiency (silicone garlic peelers).

“It’s a funny aspect of the product design field,” said Bird. “People know who designed a building, who the architect is. But who knows who invented the potato peeler?”

Many kitchen gadget designers are like the Rieses, who made a business out of a single, wildly successful product, but others have made entire careers out of a range of kitchen gadget inventions.

David A. Holcomb is the inventor of gadgets like the Pepperball, Grapefruiter Citrus Sectioning Tool, avocado slicer, papaya scoop and a one-handed can opener, all products of his 26-year-old firm, Chef’n.

In the early 1980s, the young Holcomb sold his skateboard company and moved from Seattle to Hawaii to surf. But when he ran out of money he was forced to consider a different way of life.

Combining his entrepreneurial streak and love of cooking, he invented the “Garlic Machine” in 1982, which could mince multiple cloves of garlic by placing them in a plastic canister and twisting a handle at the top.

Holcomb can still rattle off the patent number for the “Garlic Machine”--4,537,123--even though he now has over 300 patents to his name, including those for multiple chamber condiment grinders and shrimp deveiners.

But not all ideas for kitchen gadgets become best-sellers. Leslie Fontana, head of the industrial design department at Rhode Island School of Design, said inventions succeed because the design is borne of a need. “If the need is pure and well-defined you can create a specific object that accomplishes that need exactly, and that’s good design,” said Fontana.

At Cook’s Illustrated, McManus said they’re often skeptical of single-use tools. “Most of the time, your basic tools, such as a good chef’s knife, are all you need,” she said. Nevertheless, even McManus has her own favorite gadget. “Never try to part me from my Microplane Zester,” she said, referring to a long, stainless steel grater. “My 6-year-old uses it to grate parmesan--it’s that simple.”

E-mail: mo2305@columbia.edu