NEW YORK — Berries are hot this year, Scott Goldsmith was saying on a recent rain-flecked Friday, brandishing a bright-red plastic, wagon wheel-shaped gizmo called a PushBerry, which aims to hull and slice your strawberries in one go.
Avocados, still hot, he added, gesturing at the Flexicado and the Avoquado — two of the many slicers and pitters for sale in his store, all rendered in acid-green plastic (designers of kitchen gadgets seem to go in for biomimicry). As for tenacious kale, this decade’s celebrity green, its grooming aids include the Looseleaf and the Swiftstrip, otherwise known as kale leaf strippers, the solution to a problem you might not know you had.
Goldsmith, 61, is the third-generation owner of S. Feldman Housewares — a glittering bazaar on Manhattan’s Upper East Side — and an impresario of kitchen gadgetry. His shelves were bursting with esoterica like the billowy yellow silicone Food Pod (a combination steamer and colander that looks like vegetation imagined by the production designers of “Star Trek,” $14.99); the SpreadTHAT titanium butter knife (“It’s pretty cool,” Goldsmith said. “It uses the heat of your hands. I don’t eat much butter, but I don’t discriminate,” $19.95); onion goggles ($19.95); and sequined aprons ($120) that were a big hit last Christmas.
How do you wash the aprons? “I have no idea,” he said.
Goldsmith’s long retail career spans decades of gadgetry — including truffle shavers and cherry pitters, Salad Shooters and spiralizers — and traces a history of ingenuity, optimism and sheer whimsy. If the invention of defoliating devices for cruciferous vegetables causes you to think the makers of kitchen gadgets have collectively lost their minds, Goldsmith will remind you that his store has been in business since 1929.
“Between you and me,” he said, “most of these things you can do with a knife.”
To an industrial designer, the universe of possible kitchen tools is infinite. Very few objects would not benefit from a good rethinking, said Tucker Viemeister, a founder of Smart Design, among other companies, who has reimagined items as complex as a toaster, and as simple as a potato peeler.
In 1990, when Smart Design’s Oxo Good Grip peeler hit the market, with its fat, comfy rubber handle and fixed blade, it was a kind of revolution. “On the one hand, designers are really optimistic because they think they can make things better,” he said. “On the other hand, we think everything is wrong or broken.”
In “Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat” (2012), Bee Wilson, the English food writer, explored how technology, social mores and food fashions have long collided to create a pageantry of gizmos.
New technologies rendered entire categories obsolete; when stoves replaced the open hearth, the hasteners, spits, spit jacks and spit dogs that attended them vanished. Technology has altered the meal itself. After the Cuisinart, we were swimming in purees, a situation Wilson said had contributed to the robust artisanal fare of today, prized because “someone’s hand had been tired out making it.”
As she wrote, “the birth of a new gadget often gives rise to zealous overuse, until the novelty wears off."
She continued, “To the woman who has just acquired an electric blender, the whole world looks like soup.”
In terms of pure function, Wilson said recently, “very few new gadgets are any improvement on a sharp knife, a good source of heat and a dexterous pair of hands.”
A decade ago, “half the items for sale in cookware shops seemed to be cupcake-related,” she said.
“But now, we have moved on. Veganism seems to be where much of our cooking desire has moved, hence the incredible success of the spiralizer. When they started appearing a couple of years ago, I felt that spiralizers were destined for immediate obsolescence, but I was completely wrong. Maybe it’s because of low-carb diets or maybe it’s the rise of #plantbased on Instagram, but it turns out that the ability to turn a beet or zucchini into something resembling telephone wire speaks to more people than I ever knew.”
Christopher Kimball, the determinedly skeptical cooking program host and co-founder of two food networks based in Boston, America’s Test Kitchen and Milk Street, identified three categories of kitchen gadgets: Completely Idiotic Useless Objects, Things That Are Not Worth the Storage Space, and Things That Seem Practical But You Could Actually Do Better With a Knife.
“A well-designed tool is immensely valuable,” Kimball said. “But for the specialty items you’re only going to use once a month, how much more work is it not to use it?”
Yet, Kimball is not immune to the siren songs of some gizmos. A few years ago, at the International Home and Housewares Show, the food world’s annual gadgetfest held each March in Chicago, Kimball found himself unexpectedly moved by the BeepEgg, an adorable egg-shaped timer you boil with your eggs. When they have reached the desired degree of doneness — soft, hard or in between — BeepEgg plays a tune (like “Killing Me Softly” for soft boiled).
Kimball also acknowledged having bought every iteration of egg poacher over the years, even though, as he said, “at the end of the day, it actually isn’t that hard to cook an egg.”