The Spirit Of Innovation Still Thrives In The Good Old Kitchen Hack : The Salt What would Robinson Crusoe have done with a watermelon cuber? His spirit of ingenuity lives on in the kitchen, as inventive cooks still think beyond the norm of conventional kitchen tools.
NPR logo The Spirit Of Innovation Still Thrives In The Good Old Kitchen Hack

The Spirit Of Innovation Still Thrives In The Good Old Kitchen Hack

Illustration from a 19th-century edition of Robinson Crusoe, a novel by Daniel Defoe first published in 1719. It relates the story of Robinson Crusoe, stranded on an island for 28 years and his subsequent fight for survival. Out of desperation, he became a master of innovation, especially at preparing meals. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images hide caption

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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Illustration from a 19th-century edition of Robinson Crusoe, a novel by Daniel Defoe first published in 1719. It relates the story of Robinson Crusoe, stranded on an island for 28 years and his subsequent fight for survival. Out of desperation, he became a master of innovation, especially at preparing meals.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

This year marks 300 years since the publication of Daniel Defoe's blockbuster novel Robinson Crusoe. And while its hero is rightly hailed as fiction's most famous castaway, he can just as equally stake his claim to another — more culinary — title.

Robinson Crusoe: patron saint of the kitchen hack.

This is the man who grew, ground and baked his own organic, artisanal bread from scratch — with nary a Kitchenaid mixer in sight.

In an age when we are drowning in kitchen gizmos — whether it's a waterwheel-shaped device to cube a watermelon or a pint-sized mill to mince your herbs or a steel pot with buttons that promises Michelin magic — it's inspiring to recall the Herculean story of Crusoe's bread making and celebrate the kind of ingenuity it embodies.

Shipwrecked on a deserted island, Crusoe has no plow, no scythe, no threshing floor, no mill, no sieve, no oven. No problem. Driven by desperation, he comes up with tools and methods to turn his precious store of corn into freshly baked loaves: a bough of a tree is his harrow and a cutlass his scythe; he uses his bare hands to rub the kernels from the ears for want of a threshing floor; a mortar and pestle scooped from tree wood serve as a mill; calico and muslin neckcloths retrieved from his ship sift the coarse meal; and as for an oven — that seemingly insurmountable hurdle — rough clay pans handcrafted by him work just fine. This is jerry-riggery at its finest, and results in what to him is the most delicious loaf of bread in the world.

The Crusoe spirit is hardly unique. Throughout history, cooks across cultures have invented ways to overcome a lack of conventional cooking tools. This is especially true in conditions of war, captivity, scarcity – and student housing

America may be the cradle of the pointless gizmo but it is also the land, as food historian Frederick Opie reminds us, of the hoe cake — those crisp discs of cornbread supposedly named after the blade of the hoe on which they were baked by enslaved men and women forced to work the cotton fields of the South. "They simply cleaned off their hoes, poured batter on it and baked their bread," says Opie. "They were also known to use clam and oyster shells as knives; they sharpened them and used them to cut and grate vegetables."

Robinson Crusoe cooked with whatever was available. Buyenlarge/Getty Images hide caption

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Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Robinson Crusoe cooked with whatever was available.

Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Vessels were scarce, but the humble gourd proved wonderfully versatile. In his memoir Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup sings its praise for dispensing "with the necessity of pails, dippers, basins, and such tin and wooden superfluities altogether." During WWI, the Salvation Army women sent to France as part of the war effort churned out thousands of donuts for the GIs, initially using shell casings for rolling pins and helmets filled with lard to fry braided crullers. They were a sensation with the soldiers, who dubbed them the "Donut Lassies."

This spirit of innovation was recently saluted by food critic Ruth Reichl in a piece for Real Simple magazine, where she called out the Great American Kitchen, with its "battery of arcane appliances," as something of a hoax. ("Utter nonsense" was how she politely put it.) Reichl joyously recalled how she and her husband made do when they were young and penniless: a bottle of cheap wine was used to roll out pastry and — charmingly — discarded ceramic flower pots were called into service to bake cakes and bread. Theirs was a small, dishwasher-free kitchen with scavenged pallets for counters, but one full of music and happiness, hungry friends and good meals. "I'm convinced I invented the microplane," Reichl jokes. "When I needed to grate Parmesan, I riffled through my husband's tool box and borrowed his rasp."

Southern cooking legend Edna Lewis would have smiled in approval. Ingenuity and thrift were values she was raised on, growing up as she did during the Depression on a farm in Freetown, Va., a town established by emancipated slaves. When she died in 2006, the New York Times obituary noted, "Without fancy cooking equipment, the family improvised, measuring baking powder on coins." Nothing was bought from the store if something at home could do the job. Buying specialized jelly bags (used to strain fruit for jelly-making) was out of the question. "I always use the washed and bleached-out bags that Virginia hams come in, and you can also use the bags that hold popcorn rice," Lewis writes in In Pursuit of Flavor. "Just wash them well and hang them in the sun to dry and bleach."

Lewis also described how, even in the summer, meat could be kept cold in a contraption called a "spring box":

"Because we had no electricity, fresh meat was not refrigerated, but we could store it and other perishables for a few days in the spring box, even during the hottest weeks of the summer. The spring box was a covered wooden box set over the run-off stream from the spring. It had holes in both ends so that a tiny trickle of cold, clear spring water passed through it and kept any food stored inside perfectly cold ... My aunt, who had a well for water rather than a spring, would put food in the bucket and keep it cold by lowering it down the well."

"I love the Edna Lewis story about refrigeration," says Nashville baker and author Anne Byrn, who has improvised all her life. "I have used a sharp paring knife to cut slivers of lemon zest when there's no zester on a photo shoot, and I know the visual tests for candy making in case there's no thermometer around," she says. "This has completely frustrated my husband, John, a lover of gadgets, especially because I tossed out his red plastic shrimp deveiner when we were first married. I thought, Who needs this when you've got a sharp paring knife? ... But, I bought him a replacement!"

In her book American Cake, Byrn notes that Shaker women used peach twigs to whisk egg whites in the forlorn hope that it would impart a peachy flavor to the meringue. "The Shakers were truly innovative as well as minimalists," she says. "They cared for nature, and it's no small coincidence that their contribution to cooking has been the lemon pie in which you use the entire lemon."

Byrn's forthcoming book, Skillet Love, is a tribute to the pan that does everything. "It's perfect for people who like to improvise and are gadget-weary. It can pound chicken flat into cutlets. And now it is my new go-to pan for baking cakes. A pound cake baked in a cast-iron skillet has a crunchy exterior and the most tender interior crumb. And oh ... while we're talking about baking, cooks used tin cans to stamp out biscuits and cookies. Which is why tin cookie cutters cut the best! "

Empty tins are a hacker's best friend. Ask the renowned chef of Italian food, Lidia Bastianich. "For baking, I always have four empty tomato cans, cleaned, and I use them to prop up a hot baking sheet coming out of the oven to cool," she says. For British chef Jamie Oliver, an empty jam jar is his gadget du jour. "Super-cheap and super-useful, for anything from salad dressings and salsas to storing pulses and spices." One more use for the jam jar? It's the hipster's vessel of choice for drinking over-hopped, overpriced craft beer.

Another fertile nursery of innovation is the prison. "I've done recent work with prisoners and have been simply amazed by the things they come up with," says Opie, who has a fascinating podcast called Joint Genius, Prison Pop Ups and Moonshine. "In one prison, there is a commissary where inmates can buy a hot pot, something to heat food but not cook or boil in — since boiling water can be used as a weapon. But there are a couple of prisoners who are really clever and they simply rewired those pots and now they use them to cook and boil food. It's amazing. They also use their T-shirts as a sieve to make all kinds of alcoholic beverages."

The T-shirt-as-sieve hack recalls Crusoe's neckcloth-as-sieve one. The bottle-as-rolling pin trick, of course, is hardly new, and Reichl will be pleased to know that when Gandhi was imprisoned by the British in 1932 during the Indian freedom struggle, he and his secretary, Mahadev Desai, used a glass bottle to roll out thin rotis (unleavened bread) when the jail warder didn't have a rolling pin handy. Opie calls these innovations "universal ways of surviving."

If neckcloths, T-shirts, cutlasses and rasps can be pressed into service in the kitchen, kitchen products, too, can be called upon for non-culinary purposes. Chef Richard Bertinet says his scraper is indispensable "for cleaning the car windscreen in winter," while Fergus Henderson gets lyrical about the wooden spoon: "You can stir food, spank those who need spanking, conduct [an orchestra]. ..." If one were to rewind all the way back to the Crusades, there is the Englishwoman named Margaret of Beverly, who defended herself in Jerusalem by clapping a saucepan on her head for a helmet.

In America, one of the most enduring icons of re-use is the feedsack dress, a fashionable garment that grew out of the hard years of the Depression, when creative rural housewives refashioned feed sacks and flour bags to make clothes, curtains, towels and quilts for their families. Frugality aside, creating something beautiful out of ordinary packaging gave these women a sense of pride and joy that helped lighten those bleak years.

Food magazines and YouTube recognize this spirit and are constantly coming up with useful tips, whether it is using a wine stopper to make thumbprint cookies; a cooling rack to steam veggies; or a shower cap to cover a dish instead of fiddly plastic wrap.

For those who love hacks, gadgets are simply an impediment. To quote the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie from another context, they have "no more need of those implements than a deer has, browsing in a glade." The great Elizabeth David's rant against the "utterly useless" garlic press — that most divisive of all kitchen gadgets — is now legendary.

But there are other great chefs — Julia Child and James Beard among them — who love gadgets. Beard's joy on first encountering a food processor in Paris — he played a key role in making the Cuisinart processor a commercial success; it was a flop before he and Julia Child championed it — is perfectly understandable. The food processor, like the refrigerator, was life-changing, liberating cooks (mainly women) from the drudgery of chopping and grinding. But Beard also tended to get gulled by the flood of new and improved devices entering the market, and his editor Judith Jones complained bitterly about Corningware installing smooth-as-glass burners in his kitchen, which may have looked svelte but were as "slow as molasses to heat up."

For all his love of gadgets, Beard knew that the most intelligent and sensuous tool in the kitchen was the human hand. "Hands are our earliest tools," he said. "Cooking starts with the hands, which are so sensitive that when they touch something, they transmit messages to your brain about texture and temperature."

The gadget debate will last forever, but most cooks will raise their glass to the one gadget that's simply indispensable. Poet Wendy Cope captured its profound importance when she wrote:

The day he moved out was terrible --
That evening she went through hell.
His absence wasn't a problem
But the corkscrew had gone as well.

Correction Sept. 17, 2019

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Robinson Crusoe was published 200 years ago. It was actually published 300 years ago.