Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Knives are the worst culprit

It happened so fast. I was frantically chopping and measuring, testing a recipe for tamales for the Washington Post's Food section, when I set my knife — my new, ultra-sharp chef's knife — on the edge of a cutting board, which itself was perched at the edge of my kitchen counter. When I reached for some ingredient or another, I knocked the knife by the handle, and it began to spin, and then to fall — off the board and off the counter.

I didn't try to catch it, I swear. I know the old kitchen-safety saying: "A falling knife has no handle." But I couldn't move out of the way fast enough. And before I knew it, I was clutching my right pinkie finger, pressing on a throbbing wound and holding my hand above my head to try to get the bleeding to stop. It wouldn't. The wound was deep, the pain was intense and the situation was clear. I needed to get to the ER, fast.

The kitchen is considered the most dangerous room in the house for good reason, and not just because of those knives. Ask any passionate cook to roll up her sleeves, and you're likely to see burn scars on arms that touched 400-degree oven racks, palms that grabbed sizzling pots without the protection of mitts, or fingers that were splattered by hot oil.

While burns can be painful, it's the cuts that most often lead to the ER. Knife accidents at home led to hospital visits almost 330,000 times in 2011, according to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, a survey maintained by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In a sample of more than 8,000 of these cases, more than two-thirds of the injuries were to fingers.

As my own experience proves, hurting yourself in the kitchen isn't just for newbies.

The pros do it, too; most any restaurant chef has a bloody tale or two to tell. Knife wounds are a running thread through most seasons of the Bravo show Top Chef, where the message is: Keep cooking, no matter what.

I'm no Jacques Pepin, but my knife skills are definitely above average. I know how to curl back the fingers on one hand while I use it to guide an onion I'm chopping with a knife held in the other. I can tell you the difference between julienne and chiffonade, and can accomplish them both. But I've been inflicting mostly minor cuts on myself with semi-regularity ever since my knife-skills instructor told my class on that first day of cooking school that leaving your fingertips exposed to the path of a knife "is the quickest way to turn a white onion into a red onion."

Even today, every now and then the knife doesn't go where I want it to. Before the pinkie incident, the last cut of significance happened as friends and I were rushing to finish cooking for a party and I was using someone else's knife to chop a mountain of parsley. Rather than divide it into manageable piles, I went at it in one fell swoop — and that swoop gave me a particularly aggressive manicure, one that required a long timeout and a succession of bandages before it healed.

Why do people cut themselves in the kitchen? Sometimes it's as simple as ignorance: You just don't know the best way to cut some unstable — often round — ingredient. It might be because the knife is dull, making it more likely that you'll slip as it catches rather than slices. Or perhaps it's because the knife is new: sharp, yes, but also dangerously unfamiliar.

Often, the cuts happen because you're using the knife for an unintended purpose. The NEISS survey is rife with such wince-inducing mentions.

Kathleen Flinn, author of The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, said that when she teaches knife skills, she gets an earful of such stories. "My favorite was a TV host in Tampa who somehow cut herself on the wrist while making brownies. Apparently, the cut occurred while she used a boning knife from her block to pry them from the pan."

I learned the hard way, after my visit to the George Washington University ER resulted in four stitches to my pinkie. I spent more than a week conducting my two most frequent tasks — typing and cooking — with one hand, and not my dominant one. I may have finally internalized one of the most important aspects of knife skills: focus. I treat that knife, and all others, much more carefully. And I haven't cut myself since.

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