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Thursday, October 5, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ron Judd

Americana to the core: the Apple Master

Seattle Times staff columnist

Even with arms already full of Elstar apples and pressed cider, I could hear the thing calling to me from the shelf.

Fortunately, Emjay was along with an extra set of hands to snatch up what would qualify as the shopping find of the day at the fall fruit festival at Cloud Mountain Farm in rural Whatcom County: an Apple Master.

The Apple Master, for the uninitiated, is possibly the finest example of lasting American ingenuity outside of the cast-iron skillet. It has a comical, clumsy look to it — sort of like a crude Barbie torture device. But in form and function, it's a thing of beauty: It peels, slices and cores an apple, a pear or even a potato, all in one delightful mechanical motion.

Your mom or grandma probably had one of these things. Probably still do, sitting in a closet. If not, mechanical peelers under a dozen brand names can still be found online or at kitchen specialty stores.

The Apple Master version, like almost all of these, is produced in Asia. It's sold by Norpro, an Everett company that also supplies the world with goodies such as cherry pitters, bacon presses shaped like a pig and a monster spatula called the "Jumbo Cookie Shovel."

Gazing at it on the shelf at Cloud Mountain Farm, I remembered my mom and grandparents using these mini-lathes, which either clamp onto a table or countertop and turn a box of apples into a bowl of fine, peeled slices in a matter of minutes.

The lathe apple peeler is very guy-like, and qualifies as one of America's first true kitchen gadgets. Yet somehow, I had never managed to acquire one — which left Emjay nearly speechless.

"And here I thought you had every kitchen gadget known to ... woman," she deadpanned.

Well, now I do.

I got the thing home, affixed it to the counter, and put an apple through the workings.

Fantastic. The Apple Master has a pure, Edward Scissorhands quality to it. A beefy crank. Rotating shafts. Steel blades. A cascading ribbon of apple peel. And at the end of the line, a satisfying THWUCK when the cylindrical core is pulled right out of the apple, leaving only a Slinky-shaped pile of apple meat, ready for quartering for pie filling.

Let's be honest: If you have children and/or men in the household, it's worth coughing up $24 for an Apple Master for sheer monkey/bright-red-rubber-ball entertainment value.

As the pile of apple peels began to rise on my counter, I pondered this fantastic device, which has stood the test of time unlike few, if any, other gadgets.

American mechanical apple peelers date to the late 18th century. It has become lore, in fact, that a 13-year-old Eli Whitney, later inventor of the cotton gin, began his career by designing an apple peeler in 1778. But the first U.S. patent for an apple peeler was filed by Moses Coates, of Downing's Field, Pa., in 1803. All of this is according to a scholarly article, "Apple Parers: A Slice of American History" by Don Thornton, which yours truly may have been the first and last person in the history of the world to pay $12 to download from a University of California Web site.

Four general designs were popular over the years, Thornton writes. But the lathe-style machine, like the Apple Master, is the only one surviving today — a testament to its ingenuity.

The Apple Master itself was "retooled" from one of those early designs 25 or 30 years ago by Norpro founder Gunnar Lie, who helped reintroduce the device after it had nearly vanished from the kitchen-supply scene, says his daughter, Kirsten Miller, who now runs the company.

The peeler has been changed in tiny ways to make it more "user friendly," she said, but the basic design is the same.

"The guy who first came up with it really had it figured out."

No debating that. A photo of a peeler, circa 1875, at the University of Illinois looks an awful lot like the machines of today.

Sometime this fall, when you go into dessert mode, take a second to pay homage to the lathe peeler, a true American kitchen original. You'll get a nice pie out of it, plus a slice of satisfaction. In this age of instant obsolescence, there's something magical about doing a job with the same tool your great-great-grandparents used.

Which is why today, the kitchen at Escrow Heights is finally complete, with an Apple Master, in all its throwback, red-die-cast aluminum and spinning-crank glory, on my countertop.

Right next to it: a new Cuisinart professional food processor. Another thing of beauty, with a high-powered motor, a microchip and a boxful of interchangeable blades.

Not a single one of which will peel, core and slice an apple.

Ron Judd's Trail Mix column appears here every Thursday. To contact him: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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