Long before electric carving knives and boneless pre-stuffed turkeys, carving was an art form. My mother would call us into the dining room. The turkey, golden brown and aromatic, steamed on its platter at the head of the table.
We sat at our places, unfolded our napkins, and watched as my father picked up the long bone-handled carving knife. And the steel to sharpen it with.
Flick flick. Zing zing. The steel — a round file — flashed back and forth, up and down, sharpening the alternate edges of the blade.
Occasionally, my father paused to test the edge with his thumb. Only when the knife was sharp enough would he commence slicing up the sacrificial bird.
It was a ritual.
I wondered if I would ever be man enough to sharpen up a carving knife the same way. I did get to try it once, when my father was away for some meetings. Instead of grinding off a miniscule thickness of metal from the edge, I whacked the hard steel right onto the tip of the knife blade. The tip bent. Curled, in fact. We never did get it fully straightened out again.
I was reading Chaucer in English 200 at the university at the time. The line about a young squire, “fit to carve at the table before his father,” took on new meaning for me.
Keeping tools sharp mattered back then. A dull axe could glance off the wood and bury itself in your shin. A dull chisel produced weak joints.
And a dull razor — oh, the agony! For years, in the days before Gillette, my father used an “auto-strop” safety razor. A solid blade. Anchored in a handle designed so that the user could slide a long leather strap behind the blade. As the whole thing slid back and forth, the blade flipped over and then back again, honing the edge a fraction every time.
The “whop whop whop” of my father’s razor was my wake-up call, most mornings.
The new blades are much sharper, and much smoother. The new knives have machined edges that never need sharpening.
But no one is going to remember, later in life, the silence of a multibladed razor removing stubble. Or treasure the sound of an electric sharpener grinding down the cutting edge of a carving knife.
By Jim Taylor, Okanagan Centre