Occasionally, I fantasize about getting out of the incredibly competitive racket that is food writing. I’d put my second-hand shopping gene into high gear and hang a different kind of shingle — as a local merchant. The shop would stock gently used kitchenware and cookbooks. There might be a small lunch counter serving strong coffee, grilled cheese, soup of the day and a really good cookie.
First person I’d hire is my mom, a former antiques shopkeeper and the subject of “Confessions of a Garage Sale Addict,” an April 1973 story that ran in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Susan wasn’t much of a cook (I’m working on it), but she was and remains a master at spotting the choicest relics from a second-hand/vintage haystack. It takes a special kind of crazy to bring home a 500-pound oak icebox for display in the living room.
Together, we’d comb the world of fleas, estates, garages, attics and basements for all things culinary and kitchen-y to fill the shelves. But we’re a picky pair; we’d buy as if outfitting our own kitchens and only consider any item in excellent working condition with a few good years of service left in its reserves. Although a great find, a vintage milk shake machine would only come home with us if it still could make shakes.
To that end, here’s what Mom and I would be scooping up (and passing over) to stock our imaginary cookshop — and how you can follow to trick out your very own retro-fitted kitchen.
Keep Your Eyes Peeled For…
Anything cast-iron: Skillets, griddles, Dutch ovens, muffin pans. Unless it’s rusted out beyond recognition, all cast-iron can be cleaned up, re-seasoned and good as new. When properly cared for, cast-iron will outlive you.
Bundt cake pans and pie plates: My friend Rachael, chef-owner of a pop-up bakery in Seattle, says that she can regularly find gently or rarely used Bundt pans at her neighborhood Goodwill. I second that notion for glass pie plates (leave the tin ones — which rust — behind).
Baking dishes: I’m thinking ceramic stuff, square or rectangular, that can handle macaroni and cheese and other cozy casseroles.
Cake stands and/or plates: Bought new, they’re spendy, but not so when found in all the likely second-hand spots. I just scored a traveling tin cake plate and locking lid FOR A DOLLAR. I’ve already made this cake to test its trapper-keeper quotient, and it stores like a champ.
Cutlery: Sometimes you can find beautiful flatware, but mostly I think of second-hand knives and forks for use outside the home — at the office (instead of using plastic) or on a picnic.
Pots: Yes, but only those with heavy bottoms that can withstand a few more stovetop years. Ignore any nonsticks, as well as anything made from tin or aluminum.
Roasting pans: Heavy-bottomed pans that can fit a Thanksgiving turkey are hard to find, but not impossible — and are a fraction of the store-bought price. Worth sniffing around for, particularly if you only use it once or twice a year (although I use mine to make granola every week).
Rolling pins: Always good to have one on hand, even to scare off an intruder — and pennies in a second-hand venue. And yes, you can use vintage pins — I’ve got a few from Susan’s vault that get a regular workout.
Sharpening steel: It’s that long, rod-looking thing with a handle that collected dust in your utensil drawer and you finally got rid of it. Well now I’m telling you to get it back, the second-hand way. It helps maintain the edge on your knives and keep them from getting dull (and when they’re really dull, get them sharpened).
Keep On Walking…
Anything plastic: Let’s face it; after a few years, plastic dishware, containers, pitchers and the like get long in the tooth. They’re scratched up, faded out and questionably sanitary.
Automatic drip coffee machine: Most people do not clean their coffee machines, which means they’re stained and gunked up with coffee oil residue which cannot be reversed. Older equals better does not apply here. If you’re looking for used coffee machines, consider an electric percolator or stovetop espresso pot instead.
Small tools: These too are tough to thoroughly clean and keep daisy fresh over the years. I’m thinking vegetable peelers, wooden spoons, spatulas/turners (especially if plastic), strainer, cutting boards.
Salad spinner: In addition to being made out of plastic (see earlier note), this thing tends to accumulate a layer of crud — a combination of water/calcium deposits and residual dirt — not a pleasant thought when you’re trying to eat more vegetables. This is when I always start fresh and spend the $25 – $30 bucks.
Toaster: Without being able to test it on site, a used toaster is a risky venture. Don’t forget to check for ancient crumbs!