Monday, December 22, 2008

Why I get the New Yorker

It's because of articles like the one I read yesterday, Todd Oppenheimer's "Sharper," a fascinating tour through the arcane world of knife makers.

I don't cook much, probably don't use a knife properly and don't really care. All I know about knives I learned at summer camp or in Cub Scouts and mostly forgot. Even for a nonparticipant like myself, though, it's a great read: informative, authoritative and constantly interesting.

The best New Yorker reportage comes in several flavors, the knife article being a combo treat you might call the Armchair Journey/Crash Course Swirl. It takes you somewhere you'd never go in your regular daily life and breaks it down so clearly that you feel like an expert in the field. You get the same experience reading a book by John McPhee, not coincidentally a longtime contributor to the same magazine.

Registration is required to read the entire article, but for starters, here's how the NYer website abstracts it:

ABSTRACT: OUR FAR-FLUNG CORRESPONDENTS about master bladesmith Bob Kramer. Bob Kramer is one of a hundred and twenty-two people in the world, and the only former chef, to have been certified in the U.S. as a Master Bladesmith. To earn that title, which is conferred by the American Bladesmith Society (A.B.S.), Kramer underwent five years of study, culminating in the manufacture, through hand-forging, of six knives, including a fifteen-inch bowie knife. Like a mad alchemist, Kramer, aged fifty, cannot stop tinkering with steel recipes. Last year, Cook’s Illustrated ran a sidebar which stated that the Kramer chef’s knife “outperformed every knife we’ve ever rated.” A few months later, the kitchen-supply chain Sur La Table asked Kramer to design a commercial line of knives, which the store introduced this fall. The writer toured Kramer’s shop. Kramer was absorbed in an attempt to replicate the legendary achievements of Frank J. Richtig, who, in 1936, forged a butcher knife that could cut cold steel and paper. Describes the forging process. On the retail market, Western knives tend to be the softest, with Rockwell ratings in the middle to upper fifties. The Rockwell of a traditional Japanese knife, by contrast, runs in the middle sixties. Kramer first became fascinated by sharpening in the mid-nineteen-eighties, when he was a prep cook. He took a forging course with A.B.S. and obtained his Master Bladesmith certification, a coronation the A.B.S. confers once a year in Atlanta, Georgia, at the Blade Show and International Cutlery Fair. Describes this year’s convention. Kramer’s role there was to serve as a human display item at the booth for the U.S. division of Kai, the Japanese houseware and cutlery corporation that is manufacturing his Sur La Table line, under its Shun brand. A significant virtue of a forged Kramer knife is that it takes a keen edge, holds it well, yet sharpens easily. His knives achieve a high level of performance because their Rockwell ratings hover around sixty—comfortably between Europe’s soft cutlery and the hard blades of Japan—and because his carbon steel has an unusually fine grain structure. Mentions Al Pendray, a horseshoer and Master Bladesmith, who is famous for almost single-handedly re-creating the ancient Persian method for making a highly distinctive form of steel called Damascus. Mentions John Vervoeven. During Kramer’s visit to Japan, he attended several meetings at Kai’s Shun factory, in Seki City, part of an area once known for samurai-sword making. Mentions Junichi Takagi and Harlan Suedmeier. After Kramer returned to Seattle, the writer received a photo of a bolt and baby pork bone, both splayed open. Lying on top of them was a blade with a fat but unchipped edge. Kramer had cut a newspaper with it, too.

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