October 7, 2002
My mother had a Sunbeam Mixmaster, which might have been a wedding gift in 1946. It was white with black trim and consisted of a mixer head atop a slender column attached to a turntable. The head rocked back so you could snap beaters into it and then lower them into the white translucent glass bowl you positioned on the turntable. You turned the black dial at the back of the head, and the motor turned the beaters, which turned the bowl. The slow speed was for the initial mixing of dry cake or cookie ingredients, an efficient way to distribute baking powder and salt and spices evenly through the flour and sugar. You increased the speed as you added the liquids.
I liked to watch my mother crack an egg against the side of the bowl and let the contents slide into the batter. The egg would swirl around the walls of the bowl until it was sucked into the vortex of the beaters, which then slashed the yolk and incorporated the whole thing into the mix, obliterating the eggness. The mixing would continue then at the highest speed for about two minutes, allowing the busy baker to attend to other matters and save herself three hundred strokes with a wooden spoon. Afterward, of course, there would be the licking of the beaters, one for me, one for Rosie.
That mixer moved with us from Penbrook to Fifth Street to Parkside Road when I was sixteen. It’s the appliance I learned to bake with. When I got my own apartment in 1970 my mother gave me a Good Housekeeping cookbook and a hand-held Hamilton Beach mixer. This was a motor head only, with two beaters smaller and lighter than a stand mixer’s. You used any bowl you owned, and held it with one hand and the mixer with the other. I bought a set of three Pyrex mixing bowls in graduated sizes. I still have two of them.
That Hamilton Beach portable saw me through fourteen years and four residences. By 1984 most of my baking was of yeast breads. The little mixer wasn’t much help after two or three cups of flour and several eggs had been added to a frothing yeast mixture. The summer after I married Ron, the summer before Lynn was born, the summer I decided I was now a Serious Homemaker, I bought an Oster Kitchen Center.
This versatile appliance was bigger than my mother’s Mixmaster. The motor was in the base, and the head that held the beaters came off so you could attach the blender or the food processor. It had regular beaters plus dough hooks, heavy stainless steel spirals that churned bread dough efficiently until it had lost its stickiness and you could transfer the ball to the counter for hand kneading. The food processor had discs for shredding and dicing and chopping and slicing. When Lynn was born I bought six small jars that attached directly to the blender blades. This way you could grind regular oatmeal fine enough to mix up for baby or macerate apples and peaches for toddler consumption. There was also a meat grinder with two sizes of discs, and a pasta maker.
When we remodeled the kitchen in 1995 (Lynn was ten), I considered my cooking habits and realized that I rarely used the food processor. Assembling the apparatus and cleaning it afterwards was more tedious than chopping the vegetables myself. I used the meat grinder once a year to grind chunks of baked ham for my Christmas party ham balls, but had discovered that the butcher at the Giant was happy to do it for me and add it to the quantity of ground pork I had selected. And the pasta maker? A trendy idea, I guess, part of the 1980s style of chic cuisine with fresh fettucine whipped up the morning of the party by yuppie cooks who drank wine from stemmed glasses while they worked. I think I used it once. I never installed those parts in my new cabinets, and I really don’t know what happened to them.
So I kept the mixer parts under the counter and the blender jar above the stove. I use both parts so heavily at Christmas that they sit out on the counter from Thanksgiving until the Feast of Stephen. The rest of the year, however, they sit nearly idle, either because I avoid recipes that really need motorized mixing or I’m willing to apply the elbow grease myself. After all, most of the world’s classic recipes were developed by people who had no machines whatever.
Two years ago the knob on the head release lever broke off. There were some fine cracks in the housing and warping in the plastic cover of the speed indicator window where bits of food got caught. Last Christmas I thought I noticed a certain sluggishness in the motor, not much difference between speed #5 (“mix”) and speed #10 (“whip”).
I make decisions like this slowly and sometimes unexpectedly, and I can’t tell you what motivated me this weekend to acquire a Kitchen-Aid 5-quart stand mixer, white with white trim. It doesn’t come apart, and is so tall it doesn’t fit in the under-cabinet space where I kept the Oster. That’s okay, since it’s so heavy I’d need a hydraulic hoist if I were going to move it very often. It has a stainless steel bowl that doesn’t rest on a turntable. Instead, the beater (just one now) moves around the perimeter of the bowl while itself rotating, sort of like the earth rotating on its axis while it revolves around the sun. And the implements aren’t called “beaters” anymore. There’s a flat paddle for cake and cookie batters and other light mixtures, a wire whip for meringues, and a dough hook for heavy yeast breads.
I used the Hamilton Beach hand-held mixer for fourteen years. I used the Oster Kitchen Center for seventeen years. I’m fifty-five years old. I might have just bought my last mixer.