Julia Child, that master of all things cooking, was a lifetime collector of kitchen implements because, like my dad always taught me, to do the job right, you need the right tool.
As any crafts person knows, a great tool collection doesn’t happen overnight; it requires decades of careful additions. Just like Julia Child did. Decades of collecting. She became famous for her kitchen and its cluttery genius. So famous indeed that, for the rest of her life, the gift of choice to give Julia was always a fancy knife or useful gadget.
Not all of us can afford a kitchen gadget addiction, not when it comes to the trendy stores du jour. That expensiveness can be overcome if you’re willing to scour thrift stores, yard sales, and other resale places.
But where should you focus your collecting when you’re getting started? With a page from my own book, I think these are the best items to search when building a Julia Child-worthy kitchen collection of your own.
Corning Ware, Pyrex, and other oven-safe glass and ceramic cookware. Corning Ware isn’t made the same as it once was, but it’s still excellent. Its earlier incarnation is Corning Ware I love best. That’s the old glass-ceramic Corning Ware, and it’s fantastic for non-stick qualities and versatility.
Most Pyrex and Corning Ware pieces can take a serious steel-wool scrubbing if it doesn’t look like new, so don’t be scared to get the less-than-perfect-looking pieces. These brands are often under-priced used, because they are as good used as they are new. I have pieces that my mom bought more than three decades ago, and they look like new.
Cast-iron: From Old-School to Le Creuset
Unless it’s a chipped enamelware piece, cast-iron is almost always a long-term investment. Rusted? Just take real steel wool and scrub the hell out of it. Season it with oil, and it’ll be as good as new.
You cannot have enough cast-iron. It’s the original nonstick cookware, and nothing will yield better fried potatoes or steaks for you. Cast-iron conducts and holds heat differently, and it really does impact the quality of your cooking. From cornbread cookers to cast-iron Dutch Ovens, your cooking will never be better-flavored. I’m currently on my own quest for 6″ cast-iron skillets for making single-dish oven-baked potato rosti, breakfast hashes, and more.
Task-Specific and Unique Implements
From potato ricers to food mills, there are a lot of really pricey pieces out there that people don’t really know how to use, so they just dump it on their local thrift store, and a smart eye might find you incredible bargains. Learn what things are and collect them, because they can make a big difference in your end-product.
A food mill, for instance, gives you great texture for berry coulis and other sauces, without pureeing the hell out of it in your Cuisinart. I use a potato ricer for mashing root veggies of all kinds for that perfect almost-creamy consistency and I got it for $5 at Value Village, not its $20 new list price. Lots of task-specific cooking can be done with other tools, but if you can get the right thing for under $5, that’s the thing to do.
Dinnerware and Other Dishes
From Fiestaware to teapots and silver-plated serving trays, there’s an amazing variety found at your local stores. My 78-year-old aunt had a dinner party recently and needed soup bowls, and was able to find 8 matching bowls for $8 at her Salvation Army.
I once threw a big dinner party for a dining competition and found 10 great glasses for serving my special Moroccan iced tea for just $5, and I still have them today. Another friend collected pieces of Fiestaware over the years, the dishes that Martha Stewart and Oprah love, and amassed a set for a couple hundred bucks that could easily go today for a couple thousand. Whether you’re wanting to find unique pieces or embrace an eclectic style or just save money, there are a lot of great dish finds to be had.
Not long ago, I scored a beautiful clay-pot roaster for $5 worth $60 new, incredible for oven-braising chicken and other foods. There are so many things you don’t think about for the kitchen, but once you see them, you’ll want to have it. From unique baking tins to Pyrex double-boilers, woks, and more, you never know what you’re going to find at your local thrift store, yard-sale, or Value Village.
Especially keep an eye out for cultural cookware you’ll never find at your local trendy cooking shop, like a Mexican tortilla press, pasta-makers, crepe pans, African tagines, ceramic bean-pot or crockery, and other crazy-useful cookery that can serve you for decades to come. Keep an eye on cooking shows that you watch so you’ll recognize the specialty equipment when you’re on the prowl, and save a ton of money when you find ’em. You might want to frequent thrift shops in neighborhoods you know to be African, Mexican, or whatever ethnicity you’d like to do more cooking in, as they’ll be the shops where the locals donate their cultural kitchenware.
A Lifetime to Look
It’d be nice to live in a world where you can walk into a specialty cooking shop and buy every gadget you see, but they’re priced out of most of our means. Fortunately, there’s no room more easily furnished with second-hand supplies than the kitchen.
You’ll save often 80% off these great items buying them gently-used. From tools, dinnerware, and cookware, you’ll breathe new life and functionality into your kitchen, possibly inspiring you to cook more and explore the world’s cuisines, something that might save you big money in the long run.
Who knows? Maybe all the money you save by being more excite to cook might one day pay for a new kitchen makeover. If so, don’t forget the peg-boards for hanging all your collected items. After all, Julia Child’s pegboard kitchen walls made it into the Smithsonian Museum, so she might’ve been onto something there.