It all began with the introduction of the food processor about 12 years ago. "You're looking at the beginning of a revolution," the late James Beard told a reporter at that time as the new Cuisinart model arrived. Pushed to the public eye through tremendous promotions, the revolutionary electric kitchen machine spurred trends in cooking and home entertaining.
Never before had the food world been brought to the limelight in such a way. Traveling food connoisseurs and an influx of immigrants brought new (and old) ethnic cuisines to the American table in droves. Capitalizing on the interest in food preparation and presentation, houseware designers have brought forth every possible kind of kitchen machine, gadget, cutlery and table-top accessories to meet the changing life style.
Today, when you browse through housewares and kitchen specialty shops, or even catalogues, you'll find a flood of new products based not only on function and ethnic requirements but on high fashion as well. The fact that people are now willing to pay the price for value and quality has brought the kitchen goods business, formerly hidden in a dark closet, out onto the counter.
If the food processor was originally the ultimate elite gourmet machine, the former superstar may now be as standard as a blender with a dozen or more look-alikes available in the marketplace. Its status as best seller (which peaked around 1981) has been replaced by irons and coffee makers. Perhaps espresso machines and coffee grinders may soon have their turn. With the maturity of microwave ovens, we're also seeing the infant growth of induction cooking units and induction cookware. With no flame or hot metal elements, the induction units cook by creating heat in the cookware itself; then the utensil transmits heat to the food.
Indeed . . . there's no stopping the flow of new cookware items. As a gadget or tool becomes tired and weary from age, manufacturers act fast to modify or upgrade it. Cuisinart makers, for instance, have been accessorizing their machines with attachments for various food preparations, such as the pasta attachment and a new whisk that can beat egg whites and whip cream. At the same time, Sunbeam, counting on 73% of the American households that still don't own a food processor, recently introduced the less costly Oskar, a sleek, small but powerful machine designed to be "the food processor for all of us," so their slogan says.
The most exciting trend in housewares, whether they're hard or soft goods, is in color and design. "The business of food preparation and presentation is now very clearly a fashion business," said Peter Neil, divisional merchandise manager for home furnishings and housewares at Bullock's. "Kitchens are becoming glamour places. . . . People are willing to display items like the Vivalp toaster on their counter because of design credibility," he said.
A clean, bright color palette, generally primary colors, and geometric designs, reflecting trends in ready-to-wear fashion, are being seen in painted ceramic dinnerware, acrylics, drinkware and even vacuum bottles, Neil said. "Even woods have gotten into the fashion front," Neil added. "Wooden salad bowls, cutting and serving boards are becoming lighter and lighter, giving that pale blond Scandinavian look."
Black Has Status
Black has maintained its status, blanketing high-end cookware like the popular anodized aluminum Calphalon and elegant as well as plastic dinnerware. Since dinnerware giants like Mikasa and Fitz & Floyd started selling black dinnerware about seven years ago, others have followed the black lead in almost every line except small gadgets. It wouldn't be surprising to see black kitchen terry towels.
"Black is very big," said Rex Vest of Vest and Associates (representing top-rated china and crystal) at the L.A. Mart. "Since mixing and matching is the trend now, accessorizing primary colors around black has been the usage. Aside from color, patterns are also mixed and matched to change looks or enhance a solid or old pattern."
Again, that concept takes the cue from fashion trends.
Vest's line of black-and-brights barware sets (about $75), trivet (about $20) and hors d'oeuvre plate (about $25), also reflect the influence of Memphis, a school of design currently making a hit in various table-top items in the stores. Called Memphis U.S.A., the particular collection was designed by Julie Sanders, owner of Cyclamen Studio. "The Memphis look, a new wave of abstract, very angular, geometric design, sort of the '50s look with bright infusion of colors, started about a year ago," Vest said. "It's an ongoing worldwide trade (evidenced by Japanese and European products) that will probably be around for two years like any new thing. For color, another one to watch, with or without black, is turquoise, as primaries are coming into secondaries. In Europe, however, grays and pastels seem to be in, along with the basic white."
Come and Go
While gadgets come and go, the tried and true stay to become classic goods. Many are introduced, recalled or buried and some make it in one move. Others return after being improved or perfected. The Chef Major Super Sifter (about $12.99) is a good example. After solving a few problems with the battery-operated gadget that first came out several years ago, J and F Importers' modified sifter became their No. 1 seller last December. The white and yellow plastic sifter operates on low and high speeds, uses one size C battery and has a removable funnel at the bottom of the sifter. The funnel allows concentration of flour or powdered sugar to flow into a small area like a measuring cup. Unlike the old product, which had the problem of some flour getting into the switch, the switch on the new model is away from the edge. The stainless steel mesh screen is detachable and dishwasher proof. The sifter has immediately caught the interest of bakers with arthritic problems in their hands.
Aside from the sifter, other goods in the once-neglected bakeware department have been upscaled. Many home bakers are now willing to spend $10 for a functional Rema Cushionaire cookie sheet that prevents burned cookie bottoms over a thin $2-sheet. Black steel bakeware that absorbs more heat and distributes rather than reflects it have also found a spot in better bakeware lines.
Ethnic foods, particularly Mexican and Chinese, have greatly influenced culinary ware. While Mexican-style crisp tortilla baskets are hot, retailers have come up with the innovative tortilla basket fryer (about $12.50). Consisting of two long-handled chromed steel wire baskets, the tortilla basket fryer eliminates the traditional use of double bowls, which is rather tricky.
A tortilla is placed on the bottom of the inner basket, which is turned upside down on the counter. The outer basket is then placed over it, bringing the handles together. The baskets are turned upright and the tortilla is deep-fried about 30 seconds until crisp. When removed from the oil, the basket fryer is turned upside down and the outer basket removed. Using a smaller (8-inch) tortilla is recommended. When we tried a larger size, it also worked but we had to be careful to use a deeper fryer so that all the tortilla was covered by the hot oil.
The Dumpling Maker
Last but not the least is the dumpling or pot-sticker maker (about $4.95). The ivory colored non-stick heavy acrylic plastic gadget, about 4 inches in diameter with 2 1/4-inch handles, facilitates making Chinese dumplings using round won ton wrappers. It's also great for shaping cookies, dessert turnovers and raviolis. The gadget comes with a brush to use with egg whites to seal the edges. Don't expect to acquire the speed and skill of Chinese dumpling chefs using their bare hands, but the tool works very well.
To keep readers posted on what's new for the home, a new weekly column called The Kitchen Cabinet will appear in The Times food section. In future issues, the new Kitchen Cabinet column will feature both new and upscaled large and small household items related to food preparation and presentation.
The Memphis U.S.A. collection barware by Cyclamen Studio is available at By Design, Beverly Center, Square One and Z Galleries, while the Super Sifter, tortilla basket fryer and dumpling maker are available at specialty gourmet shops and many department stores.