Sunday, May 14, 2006

small appliances

Small appliances are an amazing cultural mystery. Where do they come from? Whose idea were they in the first place? What do you do with them when they break? What do you do with them if they don't break?

Did someone get a bigger annual bonus for inventing the combination 2-slice toaster and egg poacher? Or the Oster Electric Family-Size 6-Cup Arepamaker? What, I wonder, is an Arepa? And are Electric Families better than Gas Families? I'd guess so.

Small appliances are the cargo of our cargo cult. They're the Special under the beckoning Blue Light. They're the magically seductive offer on late-night TV: there are only 253 of these babies left; you've got to act now. We create rituals to attract small appliances to our homes. Weddings. Birthdays. Housewarmings. Baby showers. They appear in all of their custom styrofoam-encased glory. They're used once, cleaned with great effort ("Who the fuck gave us this Brushed Stainless Home Chocolate Fondue Fountain?"), and then they are stored in the original packing material.

In fact, whole banks of U-Stor-It 10x10x10 storage areas are stacked solid with small appliances, all neatly returned to their original packing materials. If you lined up all of the Juice Man Jr. Automatic Juice Extractors, Presto FryDaddy Electric Deep Fryers, and Nostalgia Electrics Old Fashioned Hot Dog Roller and Bun Warmers end-to-end, you could build a bridge to a distant planet, say, Pluto. Which would be a fine place to store an Old Fashioned Hot Dog Roller and Bun Warmer, because where else can you put the darned things so they aren't in the way?

NASA, I want you to pay attention!

It's a good reason to explore space: it's a convenient place to stash the unused (and unuseful) small appliances. Out of sight, out of mind, off the planet. And if we lined 'em up, end-to-end, we wouldn't have to have those dangerous space missions using highly explosive fuels. We'd just be able to stroll to the planets. It's that easy.

The more you think about these small appliances, the less sense they make. There's no reason that a person who lives on American Airlines Snack Boxes would make pasta from scratch, let alone electrocute (electroplate?) an Arepa. No reason at all. No matter how clever the appliance (I've never seen an Arepa made that way!). No matter how artificial the desire (You don't know how fabulous an Arepa is 'til you've tasted one!). No matter how automatic the production (An Arepa in just seconds! With the press of a single button!).

But then there's Mr. Coffee. Everything I've said so far fails to apply to Mr. Coffee. I alluded to Mr. Coffee yesterday: in addition to his primary function -- providing our household with warm drinkable caffeine -- Mr. Coffee keeps track of the time. He's often a few minutes fast or slow, since I only guess at the time when I reset the clocks after power outages or circuit breaker mishaps. But he generally knows approximately what time it is. Whether the Colbert Report is about to come on or whether the fading light out the dining room window means that it's just before sunrise or just after sunset.

That's Mr. Coffee for you: quirky, loveable, stalwart, dependable.

Did I say dependable? Unfortunately, I'm lying.

This morning, Mr. Coffee failed to perform his primary function. Water was poured into the reservoir; ground coffee was measured into the filter in the basket; and the switch was flipped from Off to On. Coffee time!

Not today.

One of the great mysteries of small appliances (besides why they exist in the first place) is how they determine when to fail, when to stop working. One day, they're good to go, performing their unique, semi-useless small appliance function, and the next day they've stopped. Unlike critical elements of one's everyday life, small appliances don't quit symbolically. They don't wait until the worse possible time -- the day you're slated to appear as a guest on the Daily Show (everyone's secret dream), for example -- and then fail. No. One perfectly ordinary morning, a small appliance that's given no hints that trouble's just around the corner will simply stop working. A blip in the day's events. No big deal. Just a minor inconvenience.

Mr. Coffee -- the only small appliance in the house with a title and gender, practically a member of the family -- went on the fritz today. It was more like the blue flu than like a catastrophic failure. Mr. Coffee staged a sick-out.

So we returned to primitive days of yore and used our small aluminum drip coffee pot, the kind you might use if you were going car-camping. Its handle has been lovingly repaired with coils of safety wire. It's been used and washed and dried and used thousands and thousands of times.

We used to swear up and down that this thing made better coffee than the euphonious Mr. Coffee. And that there was no association between aluminum cookware and Alzheimer's Disease. But we must've been deluded on both fronts. My coffee was crunchy with grounds by the time I drank the last few gulps of the cup. Yuck. And I was a real 'tard for much of the day.

Late in the afternoon, we found ourselves in Walgreen's, checking out the Mr. Coffee replacements. Neither Mr. Coffee nor any of his immediate relatives were on hand. Instead we were confronted with two off-brand Signature Gourmet coffee makers, one with a clock and one without. The unit without the clock appeared to cost the same amount as the replacement pot we bought following our gravity experiments with our original Mr. Coffee glass carafe. (As it turns out, gravity works just the same way in our kitchen as it does in the other rooms of our house and the other rooms of your house. Unless you've bought one of those anti-gravity rooms from Edmund Scientific or the so-soft marble floors from The Sharper Image.) $15 plus change buys you a replacement glass carafe and $15 plus change buys you an entire new off-brand unit. For $5 more, you can get the one with the clock.

We fought briefly there in the small appliance aisle at Walgreens. I wanted the one with the clock. Like my Five Year Clock, the point wasn't knowing what time it is; my fear was that a $15 Signature Gourmet coffee maker that couldn't consult a clock would not go to any great lengths to turn itself off after two hours of frying the five drops of coffee left after we glugged our morning brew.

But fighting in the small appliance aisle at the Castro Walgreens seems so, well, suburban, so I dropped my case about automatic shutoffs. We gathered up our $15 Signature Gourmet coffee maker and a 36-caplet bottle of Wal-Awake! and got on with it. Besides, I had a sneaking suspicion that Mark was right: how many coffee makers are there that don't have the great good sense to shut themselves off after cooking five drops of coffee for two hours?

As it turns out, there's at least one: Ours. It doesn't have an automatic shutoff. And I find myself disappointed when I glance at its sleek white front, hoping to find out what time it is (and just how late I am). No time. No shutoff. There's no way I'll remember to turn the darned thing off every morning. Oh, yeah, I'll turn it off most mornings, but it's very unlikely that I'll turn it off every morning. I can already taste the scorched coffee that'll cook to the bottom of the pot in a way that defies all efforts to scour it off.

I think I'll have to go back to Walgreens and get the $20 DeLuxe Signature Gourmet coffee maker.

I mean, who ever has enough small appliances?


Blogger xm said...

very nice story! i personally admire the inventor of tv remote control and i;ve yet to answer to this particular question: was he a smart or a very very lazy man?
Anyway, one thing is for sure: they really don't know where to give Novel prizes. do you remember the last time when your remote control failed?


11:41 AM  
Blogger Cathy said...

I might note that our remote control has also failed, gradually, first the ON/OFF, then the channel up/down, but now it can no longer be used to perform its most important function: MUTE. It's incapable of muting those vile Axe Deodorant Body Spray Ads. We hear the sound on the Ab Lounge commercials. The Video Professor ads. It's too horrible!

So you've reminded me: I must go out and buy a new remote. I'm sure that'll be an adventure.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Paul Jones said...

We have different coffee difficulties. I needed coffee appliances too but of a different sort.

1:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know what idiot invented this signature gourmet coffee maker. This has to be the worse coffee maker I have ever had. You can't put water in it because there is no room. Some dumbass put a hole in the back of it so there is NO making a 12 cup pot. It leaks all over the counter. Cleaning it takes forever. I threw mine out, it wasn't good enough to give to a homeless person. Someone needs to wake up and "smell the coffee"....

3:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Purchased your signature gourmet coffee maker. What a mistake. Worst machine i ever had. It stinks like burnt plastic every time i use it.Makes coffee taste the same way. BURNT PLASTIC!!Wasted 11 pots of coffee. Had to dump it. Discusting!Also hard to pour water in.My whole kitchen stinks also when it brewed. I suggest someone with a sense of smell test these for you.I threw your GOURMET coffee maker away.

7:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah I've been brewing pot after pot of plain water trying to make the plastic chemical smell go away and its not happening. This can't be good for my health so 'm afraid the nifty little coffee pot is destined for the dumpster. I'm pretty cautious of this coming out of China right now being bad for you. this might be one of them.

5:46 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

It's been almost two years now that we've had Mr. Signature Gourmet Deluxe (w/timer).

All I can say is, you'll get used to it. You will. Honestly.

7:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just purchased the signature gourmet 2-5 cup coffee maker with the programable timer. I hope that it, too, shuts off on it's own. I noticed the burning plastic/ ozone scent you mentioned. That smell is also common with new waffle makers. It is the smell of fine layers of shellac that is painted on the wires of the inside. If it has lasted two years then it has answered my question. I have made two cups of coffee, so far, both 2 cups, and they tasted every bit as good as what was made from my Gevalia. That, too, had the same smell when it was first being used.

I used to shop at the Castro Walgreens now and then, when I was in Castro to go to the Milk Photo Lab to escape the chaos that went on in greater SF.

9:47 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

For the record (because I'm sure there is one), our third Signature Gourmet coffee maker bit the dust the other day. That is, Mark broke the carafe. And the only way to replace the carafe, it seems, is to replace the whole thing.

And so we did.

Black and Decker this time. A regular lawn mower of a coffee maker, I'd say.

7:30 PM  
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