Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Rubber Spatulas


As much as I hate Christmas shopping, it’s got to be done.  I discussed this with my wife recently.  “Everybody is getting spatulas this year,” I announced, and began to extrapolate before my wife cut me off.  “I’m not going to talk with you about spatulas,” she said gruffly.

As noted here, my wife needs to draw boundaries by declaring off-limits certain topics or concepts, including Bell’s seasoning, automotive matters (e.g., double-clutching), and especially bike lore. This is entirely reasonable.  Imagine, dear reader, how tiresome it could be to inhabit albertnet for several hours a day.  My wife rightly needs to protect her mental airspace.   And yet, I have so much to say about rubber spatulas! 

Since you have the freedom to close this browser window (a freedom which I encourage, especially if you then close all your browser windows and go outside), I’m going to get into spatulas here.  My thesis?  Spatulas are Love.

Where the rubber meets the bowl

I’m fond only of rubber spatulas.  (The other kind, like you flip pancakes with?  Not interesting to me, other than the basics:  I need to have exactly one of these, a familiar one which I’m used to, and I regard all other shapes and styles as dangerous impostors.)

Now, if you’re feeling all punctilious and want to tell me all about how the things I call rubber spatulas are actually made of plastic, I’ll just stop you right there.  The term “rubber spatula” is an idiom, not a precise descriptor.  We call a Curad adhesive bandage a Band-Aid, and we call bike jerseys “Lycra” even though many (perhaps most) are 100% polyester.  If society can absorb “fat free half-and-half” as a term, I can say “rubber spatula.”  And no, I won’t call it a plastic spatula—that doesn’t mean anything, since so many pancake-flipping spatulas are also plastic.  If you insist on the term “soft plastic spatula,” then I’m going to ask you to say “facial tissue” instead of “Kleenex,” and then I’m going to quibble (e.g., “You’re going to blow your nose into human flesh you’ve harvested from somebody’s face?!”).

Why rubber spatulas?

I am grimly aware than there are many households that don’t own a single rubber spatula.  My college roommates never had them, and at first I worried that the more slovenly among them would use and abuse mine.  Then it dawned on me that these guys had no idea what a rubber spatula was even for.  This came to a head one evening as I was using my spatula to get the last little bit of food out of a can.  “What are you doing?” my otherwise totally reasonable roommate asked.  I was immediately struck by the irony of my having experienced the polar opposite confusion dozens of times, upon seeing him throw an un-scraped can—that’s right, with at least an entire tablespoon of glean-able food left in it—into the recycling.

Here’s the thing.  My blog could go supernova and be turned into a huge series of books and eventually a giant movie franchise, making me a multimillionaire, and I would still scrape every last morsel.  My motivation here is not frugality born of necessity (as it had been during college, when I was perennially broke).  Rather, I use a rubber spatula—on a daily basis, often several times a day—simply because I have been inculcated from birth to do so.

Inculcated from birth

Okay, that previous statement was a bit of an exaggeration—it’s not like when I was still in diapers my mom would seat me on the kitchen counter and give me a demo of proper spatula use.  But she was using a rubber spatula since before I was born, so as soon as I was ready to pay attention, this behavior was on display.  I love the phrase “inculcated from birth” for this reason.  Nothing conveys principles like repeated demonstration.  The fact is, before our kids become surly, rebellious teens, we have years and years to teach them by example.  We walk the walk, and talk the talk, and since our kids literally learn how to walk and talk by imitating us, we parents have a lot of sway during those early years.  It’s up to us to take advantage.

Here’s an example.  My kids—age 13 and 15—do not have cell phones and aren’t on any social media platform.  When I boast of this stuff to other parents, they never say “you’re fricking crazy!” but rather, “How the hell did you swing that?!”  My response?  “They’ve been inculcated from birth that social media is lame and teens don’t need cell phones.”  Because we introduced these concepts so early, and reinforced them the whole way along (mainly by example), it feels normal to my kids not to have Facebook or phones.  No, they’re not happy about it, but it’s their reality and always has been, so they accept it, like religion or the force of gravity.

For my mom, rubber spatulas didn’t start out as a homemaking tool.  She first used them at work, in a hospital laboratory.  She may have even started using them in her microbiology labs in college.  The point was to be very precise in her measurements; after all, the amount of something that sticks to a petri dish or volumetric flask will vary randomly, so it must be entirely gathered up and added to the sample being tested.  (My mom is a great baker and her scientific precision is certainly a huge part of that.)  Seeing her skillfully wielding the spatula, it’s easy to extrapolate and imagine her bringing great skill and focus to her lab work, and seeing that as a kid made me feel proud.  (By contrast, my dad’s work—aerospace engineering—was so far out there, it was hard to imagine what his particular skill would even look like.)

It is probable that using a rubber spatula was the first kitchen skill I ever developed.  I clearly remember being a small child watching my mom slice mushrooms and dreaming of the day I would get to do that, but it’s a big step letting a child wield a sharp knife.  On the flip side, a pretty young kid can be trusted with a rubber spatula.  When my mom would bake, she’d divvy up the batter-coated implements among my brothers and me:   two kids would get a little beater from the electric hand mixer; one kid would get the mixing bowl; and one kid would get to lick the rubber spatula.  (How did the third kid get the mixing bowl clean?  I don’t remember … perhaps he got his own spatula.)  When Mom used the big KitchenAid mixer, meaning there was only the one big beater/wand thingy to lick, one kid would simply get a soup spoon dipped in batter.  Harvesting residual batter was a family ritual, as treasured and important as the cake itself.

So:  do my own kids use rubber spatulas?  You bet they do!  In fact, this tradition has taken on a new twist in our household.  We have a family rule that licking your plate is not allowed, period.  This bothers my kids, who are aware that their cousins have a different rule:  no licking your plate at the table.  Those kids, upon busing their dishes to the kitchen, are allowed to lick them just before tossing them in the sink.  My wife and I can’t allow this, as our kitchen adjoins the dining nook where we often entertain guests.  So our kids—acting purely on their own volition—took to excusing themselves from the table, busing their dishes, and then carefully removing every trace of sauce from their plates using—you guessed it—a rubber spatula.  Alexa, the more voracious of the two, already handles that spatula with surgical precision.  (One day she’ll forget herself and do this in front of our guests, but at least this will only be bizarre and kind of embarrassing, rather than outright appalling.)

What we talk about when we talk about spatulas

I’ve established that my wife is not going to talk to me about rubber spatulas.  But do my kids?  We haven’t discussed them yet—but I could probably introduce the topic at dinner tonight and they’d have plenty to say.  Actually, Lindsay already has—she loves the colors of the four spatulas I just bought.  Alexa would probably give a thoughtful critique, given her strong interest in maximizing the efficacy of this tool.  Better yet, I could phone one of my brothers and expect a spirited dialogue on the topic.  It might go something like this:

            “So I bought four new rubber spatulas today.”
            “Yeah?  Plastic or wooden handle?”
            “Plastic.”  (Here we would both be envisioning the same thing, with Blu-Ray clarity:  a rubber spatula whose wooden handle is slightly warped, as a result of having been accidentally put through the dishwasher.)
            “Same size head on all four spatulas?”  (I know exactly where he’d be going with this … we have little use for the grossly oversized and particularly grossly over-thick spatula heads you sometimes see, but we like the half-deep heads that are nimble enough for slender jars.)
            “No, couldn’t find narrower ones in this brand.  So it’s just a medium head.  But these bad boys are pretty sweet.  Heat-resistant to 450 degrees!”
            “Oh, that’s a great feature.  Remember that white sauce—“
            “Oh my god, like it was yesterday.”  (Decades ago I was making a white sauce—starting with a butter & flour paste, then gradually stirring in milk—and I got distracted, so that the spatula melted partway, and I was bothered by the prospect of wasting all that perfectly good butter—actually, it would have been margarine back then—so I consulted with my brother before proceeding with the sauce, which meant knowingly eating rubber.  Or plastic, whatever.)
            “How’s the feel?”
            “Well, the head has a nice tight fit on the handle, which is so hard to find.”
            “Right, so it’s not going to twist around, like in a peanut butter jar.  I hate it when they twist around.”
            “Yeah, and I’m hoping less water will get in, too.”
            “Right, less mold … awesome.”  (We’re both envisioning that gross black mold that coats the handle where it goes into the head, and replaying stock memory footage of trying to clean the mold out of the inside of the spatula head.)
            “I’ll let you know how they work out.  Man, the handles are really nice—they’re clear plastic, but clear like glass.”
            “You think they’ll get cloudy from the dishwasher?”  (Now we’re both picturing the headlights of the car that get all cloudy from years of gravel and road grime spraying up on them.)
            “I guess if that happens I’ll buy some more and just hand-wash them.”  (The perfect rubber spatula has become a Holy Grail of sorts.  Life has changed a lot since our childhood, when all rubber spatulas were made by Rubbermaid and they were all off-white with a wooden handle.)  “So, remember those old Rubbermaid ones—”
            “Right, the Rubbermaid, with the wooden handle.”
            “Yeah, exactly.  Were the heads off-white, or had they started off white and just got stained over time?”
            “I dunno … probably they started out white.  Remember how they’d get all pink—’
            “Yeah, from spaghetti sauce!  I hated that.  But these new ones, they’re brilliantly colored.  I wasn’t sure I’d like it, and I don’t think I’d want all my spatulas to be this bright, but it’s a nice splash of color among the others.”
            “It’s not at all strange that we both own lots of rubber spatulas—that seems completely normal to us, though many would find it odd.”  This last bit is unspoken, of course.  We’re not even thinking this in so many words … it’s just a shared understanding that doesn’t need to be outwardly acknowledged, which is one of the pleasures of being in a family.

“But wait!” you may say.  “Isn’t imposing your childhood behavior and vernacular on your own household an oppressive act?  Didn’t you start out this essay talking about your wife refusing to talk about spatulas?”  Fair point—when we say “family” we could mean the family we sprang from, or the family we started.  They’re not entirely separate, but neither are they one discrete entity.

I didn’t want to interrupt earlier, but here’s what I mean about mold on the spatula handle:

Incidentally, my mom still prefers wooden handles on her rubber spatulas.  Check out her collection:

Of  course not all family traditions are taken up by the next generation.  I can envision a family comprising several barbecue aficionados—who might wax rhapsodic about this or that sauce, or rub, or wood chip—but whose uber-modern kids have gone vegetarian.  I’d guess most families enjoy a crazy overlapping of traits and loves and behaviors; the Venn diagram might be kaleidoscopic.  That said, I’d be surprised if you could show me a family totally lacking in highly specific idiosyncrasies.

How families talk is part of this.  Their insular patois isn’t consciously created, but something like natural selection.  Some verbal tropes stick; some don’t.  For example, though my older daughter is an enthusiastic bike racer and loves her bike like a jockey loves her horse, she won’t talk about bike stuff with me.  The cassette on her mountain bike, though deeply scalloped for maximum weight savings, is machined from a solid block of steel, other than the 42-tooth (!) large cog, which is aluminum (!) … and yet my daughter couldn’t care less.  (If you think it pains me that nobody in my household will indulge me in gearhead talk, you’re right.)  But other verbal traditions have taken hold, such that if, upon leaving the house, I call out, “I’m going out there—don’t try to stop me,” I can count on at least one daughter saying, “You fool … you’ll be killed!” and then taking me to task if I fail to reply, “I must do this … alone.”

Will my wife engage in this silly script?  Nope.  But she has adopted this one:  “I know how to run an office!”  This comes from a tale I told once, of a temporary employee I had to train decades ago.  I’d shown her the postage machine and how to work it.  You have to pay attention, because every mistake you make costs you that much in postage—there are no re-dos.  I handed the temp a giant stack of stuffed envelopes and said, “Keep an eye out—a bunch of those are going to Canada.”  This really pissed her off, maybe because I was younger than she, and she snapped back, “I know how to run an office!”  Half an hour later, she strode in and smacked the stack of envelopes down on my desk.  I did a quick spot-check and discovered that the Canada-bound ones had the same postage as the domestic ones.  “The Canada ones have to be re-done,” I said, “because it costs more to mail things to Canada.”  She was horrified, and stammered, “I … I did not know that!” 

Somehow, this anecdote looms large enough in our familial consciousness that we routinely employ the retort, “I know how to run an office!”  It’s a very useful statement, being a nice brief shorthand for something complicated:  “I’m going to arrogantly deride your doubt in me, while acknowledging that in a short while I may well get my comeuppance because I’m not actually all that sure of myself, notwithstanding my strident attitude.”  And I think we all enjoy how the great specificity of this utterance relies on our common familiarity with the story behind it.  Perhaps my wife enjoys this one because, unlike so much of what I say, it wouldn’t mean anything to my brothers, nieces, nephews, or parents.


Getting back to spatulas, it’s not actually important whether or not my kids are ever as passionate about them as I am, nor whether they’re ever moved to hold forth verbally about them.  (Just now Alexa happened by, and I said, “Alexa, it’s time we had our father/daughter talk about rubber spatulas,” and without missing a beat she replied, “I’m not ready!”)  But I take pleasure in the following daydream:  one day, when my daughters have grown up and moved away, I’ll go visit one of them, and when I head into the kitchen I’ll find it well stocked with rubber spatulas.  This will fill me with … not pride, exactly, since using a rubber spatula isn’t something to take pride in, per se, any more than I’m proud to be an American (i.e., proud of the geographical happenstance of being born here).  I’ll be filled, rather, with a sense of identification, and the satisfaction of having had this influence on my kids. 

And perhaps, when I see my daughter expertly wield this handy kitchen gadget, I’ll be emboldened to strike up a conversation about it.  Will my daughter brush me off?  Maybe—and that would warm my heart:  she’s just like her mother!  And if she doesn’t, it’ll warm my heart when she says something insightful like, “Dad, my roommate was going off about my rubber spatula being make of plastic, so I had to correct him.  I explained that the head is actually silicone, or to be very precise, siloxane.  So then she starts rolling her eyes like she’s sooo bored, and I’m like, ‘Hey, you brought it up!’”

Either way, it’ll be heartwarming. See?  Spatulas are Love.

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1 comment:

  1. Dana, as I remember it, one guy got to lick one side of the beater and the other guy got to lick the other side... maybe my memory on that isn't quite right. Ha ha, just kidding but yeah, those were the days. We have similar rituals, though I often get to be involved, which is nice, because I still love licking a rubber spatula.