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The mother of invention

Food For Thought

It has been said that necessity is the mother of invention. I rather suspect that the invention quite often comes first and then, through fate, fad, or fashion, it becomes elevated to the status of a necessity.
Consider the electric can opener, which has become my personal symbol for the unnecessary. The only real improvement in can openers during my lifetime has been that little round cutting wheel that replaced the dangerous and awkward-to-use sharp hook on the previous model– which, incidentally, was barely an improvement over simply stabbing the can with a sturdy knife until enough of the lid was removed so that one could dump the contents out. That little wheel eliminated the necessity to stab at the can with a sharp instrument, risking cutting off a thumb in the process, not to mention leaving jagged edges on both the can and the removed lid that posed additional dangers to children or animals rummaging through the garbage dump.
That little wheel served admirably in the popularity of the Daisy wall-mounted can opener operated by a hand crank. The Daisy hung on the wall of many a kitchen for years. Its clever mount permitted it to be folded out of the way when not in use, and allowed it to be taken down for periodic cleanings or for taking along on picnics and vacations to open those cans of pork and beans and Vienna sausages so popular with short-order cooks.
There were, during those same years, innovations intended to eliminate the need for can openers altogether. The most common was a metal “key” which consisted of a slim rod with a simple loop handle and a slot at the other end. A slender strip of the metal can featured a tab that could be fitted into the slot, and by twisting the key, would neatly unwind around the can until the top could be lifted off. This was found on cans of coffee and Spam for many years. The rim of the can itself, the lid and the coiled strip of metal were all razor sharp. Then, one day, someone invented the tab-top which would remove most of the lid from a sardine can, and that, I understand, led to the pop-top beverage cans we take for granted today, and tab-top cans of soup and vegetables, which seem unnecessary.
It must have been well over 50 years ago when the electric can opener appeared. My father was fascinated by new gadgets and bought one of the first to appear in my hometown. It soon became necessary to remodel the kitchen so that there was an electric outlet in a convenient place near the stove and sink for the can opener to be plugged in. My mother liked using the electric can opener, but more than that, she loved her newly remodeled kitchen.
When I got married, I was honored to inherit the old Daisy wall-mounted can opener, which followed along from apartment to apartment, to small rental house to the large home we bought in Iowa City’s Goosetown neighborhood, and finally to the old farm house where we lived for several months while our present home was under construction. With plenty of outlets in my new modern kitchen, and no convenient wall space for mounting the Daisy, a bulky white appliance about the size of a brick standing on end appeared on the scene. Like my dad, my husband congratulated himself for at last having dragged me into the space age and converting me to an appreciation of the virtues of the electric can opener. I discovered several drawbacks to that space-age marvel.
The spring after we moved into our new house was fraught with thunderstorms that usually resulted in power outages. The electric can opener is useless without electricity. I could cook on our charcoal grill– but couldn’t warm up a can of pork and beans because the can opener was out of commission. I bought a simple hand-operated opener which worked on the same principle as the Daisy. That opener saved many a meal when the power was off. It went on picnics and camping trips and vacations, and frequently got lost in the junk drawer and was hard to find when the lights went out.
When the microwave oven intruded on my kitchen, there was again a shortage of electric outlets in handy places. The electric can opener seemed to hog as much counter space as the microwave and was no more efficient than the hand-operated version. It also had a series of ridges across its face (no doubt intended to catch drips) that were a real pain to clean once the drips had dried. It seemed to require more work than it prevented. Lately, I’ve begun to wonder if, since I like to cook and don’t mind spending time doing it– maybe the microwave isn’t worth the maintenance and space it occupies, either.