Another spork in the road

That's not a knife ... Chez Dee Cafe's Byron Woolfrey with his splades.
That's not a knife ... Chez Dee Cafe's Byron Woolfrey with his splades.

It slices and it dices, it de-cores, de-husks and de-hulls, and it can even toast or roast. But after its first flamboyant outing, its most regular role is … taking up room at the back of the cupboard, gathering dust.

While good kitchen gadgets are worth their weight in gold in terms of saving time, effort and mess, the bad can be expensive failures that are destined to remind us forever more of our profligacy.

''A lot of gadgets you just don't really need,'' Sue Jenkins of Accoutrement in Mosman says.

''If you have a good sharp knife, you can do most of the things you need to do. But, then again, a lot of people like gadgets, and like to buy them - otherwise they'd never develop so many.''

Over the years, there have been many inventions that have enjoyed a short spell in the sun, and then quietly vanished under a cloud. Remember the Teasmade - a bedside alarm clock that also made tea? Or the time when no wedding was complete without at least three fondue sets as gifts? Or the egg separator - a contraption into which you broke an egg to catch the yolk while the white dribbled down the sides - some once swore was an absolute necessity in the kitchen?

''The one item that really made me giggle was steel soap,'' says one of the owners of Scullerymade in Malvern, Melbourne, Susie Hawes. ''It was a piece of steel in the shape of soap that was supposed to take away the smell of garlic or onion from your hands. It's true that steel does that, but it's easier to rub a finger carefully on a knife blade rather than putting something so ridiculous by the kitchen sink.''

The pie maker, an electrical device resembling a jaffle maker, has all but disappeared, as has the butter press - which forced a little design into a slab of butter - and the breakfast grapefruit knife, says Michael Robertson of the Chef and The Cook in Camperdown. And, since the advent of more screw-top bottles, wine stoppers are also doomed.

''But the more obscure the gadget is, the more some people like them,'' he says. ''We do an egg topper, which cuts the top off a soft-boiled egg with a little device that sits, like a cap, on the egg as a little time ball vibrates down a rod to smash the top. We sell hundreds of them. And we also have egg cutters like old-fashioned cigar cutters in a leather pouch that retail for $70 …''

The gadget that turns hard-boiled eggs into square shapes for ease of sandwich making has fared less well, however, as have electric carving knives, he says.

Yet, while he scorns the banana holder, a phallic-shaped banana container that saves a banana from getting squashed in a bag, Cuisine World in Melbourne's city centre names it as one of its big successes, with great novelty value.

''When I first saw them, I thought, 'Who's going to buy these?''' says one of the store's owners, Greg Vivas. ''But we've sold boxes of them! The only time they didn't sell was during the banana drought.''

The banana slicer, a plastic mould with blades designed to fit the fruit perfectly, just didn't cut it with customers. It was a similar story with tomato corers - like a melon baller, but with spikes (and whatever happened to the melon baller?) - while taco holders, resembling a letter rack to keep them upright while being filled, didn't add up to a can of beans, either.

But it's equally true that one person's bad gadget is another's dream kitchen aid. Top or bottom cupboards across the nation are stuffed with yoghurt makers, bread makers and pasta machines, while other owners still swear by them.

Gadgets like onion goggles, designed to shield the eyes from tear-inducing onion fumes, and regularly singled out for ridicule on TV shows, such as Modern Family, also have their fans. ''I thought they were ridiculous when they came out, but we have so many customers coming in all the time and asking if we sell them, that now we do,'' Jenkins says.

Less popular have been strawberry hullers, tomato peelers, garlic tube rollers to take the skin off garlic, and orange peelers that cut the orange into quarters and then, allegedly, slide the skin off. Jenkins also had little time for biscuit presses. ''You pressed the dough in to get different designs, but if your mixture was too sloppy, it went through and, if it was too hard, you couldn't get it in,'' she says.

And chocolate fountains? Matthew Blakely, of The Essential Ingredient in Rozelle, is dismissive. ''People use them once, they gunk up with chocolate before too long and they're never used again,'' he says. ''It's the same with fairy floss machines, they're used once, like the toaster with the built-in egg poacher and the croquembouche cone. People buy them, they make one for a birthday, then they're stuck with a giant cone there's never any other use for, except for reserving parking in the street.''

Fashion plays an enormous role in gadget success or failure. George Lancaster of the Australian Gifts & Homewares Association says branding carries huge weight. ''These days, any kitchen item to do with MasterChef, even for children, does well, but you do have to wonder how often it'll be used. Because it's trendy, it sells, whether or not it's actually useful.''

Like TV shows, the taste for certain gadgets can be cyclical. The fashionable new cafe Chez Dee in Potts Point serves its cakes with splades - a spork (a cross between a spoon and a fork) with a blade on one side (now crossed with a knife).

''They are great for desserts and work perfectly,'' co-owner Byron Woolfrey says. ''I grew up with them and when we came here, I thought we so need splades! And if we can help with a little splade renaissance, wonderful.''

A few years ago, it was hard to find a pressure cooker to buy, now they're back again, with ABC newsreader Juanita Phillips two years ago having written a book called A Pressure Cooker Saved My Life. And while you'd think many of us would be content that our meat is now less fatty, Robertson says a big seller is the old larding needle, designed to inject fat back into meat to improve the taste.

Old-fashioned stove-top coffee pots are constantly being brought into the Vinnies op shop in Melbourne's Collingwood, says Vee Delima, because they've now been replaced by coffee machines. But at Vivas's store, they're all the rage. ''They've really come back in fashion and are very, very popular,'' he says. ''People like the taste of coffee made in them, and they don't want to spend so much on a machine that can break down.''

Some gadgets can be useful if a certain food is being prepared in great quantities. A sandwich cutter, a square that holds a sandwich steady while a blade halves it, might be a boon for cafes but a bit of a waste of space for people at home. Similarly, the vast variety of knives for cutting every conceivable fruit might be excellent if you have, perhaps, a thrice-daily mango habit, but not otherwise.

The hot dog maker is another case in point. ''It has a water container for keeping the dogs hot in boiling water, and stainless-steel skewers on the sides to make a hot dog-shape hole in the bread,'' says a buyer at Chef's Hat in South Melbourne, Mel Hoffman. ''But you'd have to eat an awful lot of hot dogs to make it worthwhile.

''Some people just want a gadget for every specific task. But they can be easily replaced by another implement that does many things, like a knife. They can end up taking up a lot of room …''

This story Another spork in the road first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.