Olivia Dish

Woman Sharpens Her Knives: News at 11

In Kitchen Equipment on November 22, 2009 at 2:15 pm
Olivia's knife

My Knife, My Self

“No one knows where women sharpen their knives.”

The writer James Dickey told us, when I was a grad student, that this was an old Bohemian proverb. I wrote it down. I thought I might want to stencil it on my kitchen wall someday.

Years later, when I was writing a cable TV food show, I told the chef I was working for about the quote. His response: “That’s because women don’t.”

To prove his point, he went through my kitchen and threw out every dull, cheap, unworthy knife…in short, all of them. He marched me to a local store and insisted I buy a set of Messermeisters. Then he lectured me on proper knife care: don’t toss them in a drawer or dishwasher, use a wood or plastic cutting board, hone the blades frequently and carefully.

And NEVER EVER sharpen your knives yourself. Leave that to professionals.

Since then, I’ve followed the rules. Well I had, until a couple of weeks ago….

…. when my friend Whit DeSpoon regaled me with tales of his own knife-sharpening.  He had sharpened, among others, two hand-ground knives I’d given him.

Mr. DeSpoon shows me a new angle

I winced. I love those knives. But it had worked out perfectly, he assured me.

“I’ll bring the stones over, and we’ll sharpen yours,” he said. I hesitated. I heard the “never ever” ring out from my memory. But Mr. DeSpoon was being so helpful. Could I resist?

They’re only knives, I told myself. I could buy more. My grandfather had sharpened his knives on a spinning whetstone every fall before the hog-killing season began. People throughout history had sharpened their own knives.

“Okay,” I said.  What the heck.  Forget the TV chef. I would trust Mr. DeSpoon.

Taking a swipe at DIY sharpening

He arrived carrying a small, beat-up cooler. Inside were two rectangular stones that looked like large sanding blocks. Like sandpaper, the stones were graded rough and fine. He positioned the rough stone first, perpendicular to the counter’s edge, on a damp kitchen towel so it wouldn’t scratch my countertops or slide.

knife sharpening

Keeping a steady hand

Taking my eight inch chef’s knife, he demonstrated the technique, holding the blade at an angle, turning his upper body slowly to draw the knife across the stone  from heel to tip, five on one side, five on the other, then three and three, then ones and ones.

I gave it at try.

After about three sets of this, we tested the blade’s sharpness by holding up a piece of paper and trying to slash it.  Not impressive. Possibly even worse than when we’d begun.

Mr. DeSpoon looked worried. He  still recalled my shriek when he’d put one of my knives in the dishwasher.

“Maybe we should hone it,” I said hopefully, explaining that while sharpening removed some of the metal, honing would realign the blade. I drew out my honing steel and pulled the blade along it, alternating sides, about a dozen times.

I held up a new sheet of paper and tried again. This time, the knife slashed through, better than new.

Edge in the Kitchen

All you want to know, possibly more

Some of my other knives required a bit more work, a few more passes across the two stones, then honing, before they were paper-slashing sharp.

Still, I wondered—had I done the right thing?  Would a pro take one look and declare my knives ruined? I turned for some post-sharpening reinforcement to An Edge in the Kitchen by Chad Ward. Ward covers all the basics about knives and knife skills in this book.

And Ward says, yes, we average knife owners are capable of sharpening our own blades. He shows you how, with very specific instructions for achieving a proper burr, maintaining a good angle, and so on.

(Perhaps from that “and so on” you get the correct impression that Mr. DeSpoon and I did not bother with these particulars. We just tried to freehand our sharpening with a reasonable amount of care.)

As for where women sharpen their knives, I can’t speak for the rest of my sex, but I now sharpen mine in my kitchen, on borrowed stones delivered in a battered red cooler by Whit DeSpoon.


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