Vintage kitchen gadgets inspire collection
By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
Some of Kathleen Hill’s fondest memories come from the kitchen table of her childhood home in Berkeley. The scent of warm cinnamon toast or a sip of fresh-squeezed orange juice take her back to a simpler time, an era she can’t quite leave behind.
Hill is fascinated – obsessed even – with the kitchen gadgets of generations ago, from old-fashioned toasters and aluminum juicers to intricately designed egg beaters and saw-toothed tomato slicers designed to help homemakers of decades ago.
The prolific food and wine writer and author has become something of an expert on kitchen gadgets, intrigued by their design and histories but mostly by the memories they evoke.
She will share items from her extensive collection in an upcoming exhibit at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, “Kitchen Memories: Kathleen Thompson Hill Culinary Collection.”
“That’s what this is all about – the nostalgia and the kitchen memories,” Hill said.
Her collection includes more than 1,000 items, the everyday implements and utensils used by home cooks for generations. Several pieces date to the 1790s, with most originating in the U.S., England, France and Germany.
They chronicle a changing society but evoke memories of simple moments spent around the kitchen counter preparing family meals.
“One of the biggest privileges of my life was sitting in my Jewish grandmother’s kitchen shelling peas for her,” Hill said.
Others, she’s discovered, are equally sentimental about time shared in the kitchen.
She’s displayed portions of her collection before, at cooking classes, lectures and presentations. Each time, people have approached Hill with their memories. A rusted flour-sifter, an antiquated rice mill or a wooden rolling pin bring them home to a grandmother’s kitchen, days cooking with their late mothers, their childhoods of long ago.
That a kitchen gadget can move someone is joyous for someone like Hill, who once ditched classes at the Sorbonne in Paris to audit classes at the Cordon Bleu cooking school. Her mentor (and friend) was the preeminent food writer M.F.K. Fisher.
“The best part is listening to people’s stories,” Hill said. “The memory of what they all evoke.”
Hill, who is a grandmother but doesn’t share her age “with even my closest friends,” began her collection in the 1970s when she was newly married to Gerald Hill, picking up an old-time ice cream scoop or soup ladle for a few coins.
“We had no money so we’d drive around California just to have a little fun,” she said of the couple’s early years together.
Hill always returned home from those budget excursions with a secondhand kitchen gadget for her mother, an artist and interior designer.
“You know how you often give gifts of things you like? I think that was what was going on,” Hill said. “Everywhere we went I came back with kitchen utensils tucked among my underwear in my suitcase.”
She eventually inherited the collection, which continues to grow with every neighborhood yard sale or visit to an antiques shop, flea market or thrift store. Today her own two children keep the tradition alive and gift their mother with kitchen discoveries.
Hill searches out the spoon, spatula or strainer she doesn’t yet have; the colander, candy mold or cookie jar like no other; the nearly-forgotten pressure cooker or lard container someone considers useless.
“Sometimes people think this is old crap,” Hill said. “They don’t know.”
Hill doesn’t just plunk her finds into a box. Some are on display in her Sonoma home, some items she uses for her own cooking.
She researches every item, looking for origin and history, motivated by a curiosity of what was happening in the world when the items were in use.
“It’s fascinating not only with the objects and what they could do but what was going on in people’s lives as they used them,” Hill said. “The cultural part is what interests me.”
Hill wonders about the social standards of the day when a well-coiffed and “airbrushed” housewife smiled from the package of a vintage cooking thermometer set from Westinghouse.
“I love the research,” Hill said. “It’s the hunt for the stuff and the hunt for the information.”
Hill did detective work using her research skills, finding histories on most everything in her collection. She wrote the catalogue for the upcoming museum exhibit, with photography by her son, G. Mack Hill.
“I discovered I have the first pop-up toaster ever made,” she said. “And I discovered newer isn’t necessarily better. None of this stuff is falling apart in 100 or 200 years.”
Hill’s collection includes everything with a kitchen use, and obscure items with little purpose.
“I’m looking for the thing I don’t have. I don’t look for the value,” she said.
Hill has spending limits, which she rarely exceeds. At first it was $3, raised to $8 nearly a decade ago. She’s perfected the art of negotiation but spends more for something especially extraordinary, but that’s a hard call with Hill. To her, most every kitchen item is rich with beauty and intrigue.
She loves the artful style, design and function of many items, particularly cheese graters. A standing model from the late 1800s topped with a French fry cutter is Hill’s very favorite piece.
She also points to the potato mashers of long ago, each one with a different design: curves, lines and circular styles introduced before electric mixers and instant mashed potatoes hit the grocery shelves.
“They’re of various cool designs in my view,” she said. “I kind of have a memory of which I have so I don’t buy duplicates.”
Even her egg beaters are intriguing.
“I have egg beaters and egg beaters and egg beaters, all different,” she said of the more than 80 in her collection.
She points to one called “The King of Beaters” as especially unique. “This is one of my favorites,” she said. Eyeing another, “Oh and I love this one, too.”
The old-fashioned hand beaters are just one of many gadgets dedicated to eggs, some dating to the late 1800s. There are egg poachers, egg baskets, egg extractors, egg cartons and an egg scale that determines small eggs from extra-large grades for packaging.
The egg scale cracked her budget. How much beyond her $8 limit? “More,” Hill said, smiling broadly and laughing.
Hill has about 70 cracker boxes from 15 countries, some for the same brand but with different languages and slightly different designs. A 1995 Ritz anniversary container in French and English purchased at a flea market in Victoria, B.C. is among her favorites, a deal at $4.
The collection also includes advertising signs for food and kitchen products, restaurant matchbooks from an era when smoking was in vogue and all sorts of ephemera: Campbell’s Soup advertisements from women’s magazines; an extensive menu collection including those from Nixon’s White House; S&W and Blue Chip stamp books; retro recipes; cookbooks; food pamphlets; and more.
Has this culinary expert found anything she can’t live without, something so useful it belongs in every kitchen across the globe?
Yes, Hill said, she has.
“The knife. That’s it.”
“Kitchen Memories: Kathleen Thompson Hill Culinary Collection” runs Sept. 7 to Dec. 1 at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, 551 Broadway. Special events will be announced throughout the exhibit; visit svma.org for details.
Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday. Admission is $5, free to students 18 and younger. Admission is free to all on Wednesdays.
For more information, call 939-7862.