Knives are Dangerous

This morning, I got up early, not because I intended to, but because I have been getting up early for the past four mornings. I have been impersonating a morning-person so that I could let the contractors into the house in order that they could finally finish their work; now my brain is trained to awaken at seven thirty, no matter what time I went to bed.

I was awake, though I did not want to be, so I decided to look in the New York Times, to see what is going on in the world outside of Athens, Ohio. I figured that I would find something that would disgust me enough that I would want to crawl back into bed as a means to avoid the world, thus ensuring that I might get enough sleep after staying up late working on a writing project.

I was not disappointed.

I found a story which was about yet another sign that the Apocalypse is nigh–or at least that is the studied opinion of none other than Anthony Bourdain, author of the best-selling memoir, Kitchen Confidential and executive chef at Les Halles.

For those who don’t want to read the actual news article, the gist of it is this: three British physicians wrote an editorial in the most recent edition of The British Medical Journal calling for a ban on the sale of long, pointed kitchen knives. This is because the rate of violent crime in the UK, including murders where kitchen knives have been used as weapons, has risen by 18 percent between 2003 and 2994. The authors insisted that knife manufacturers redesign their knives with rounded, blunt tips, because the pointed tip of the standard chef’s knife is a vestigial feature from less civilized ages when people speared their meat at the table.

Not only did they make the ridiculous claim that the sharp tips on chefs knives are essentially useless in the kitchen, they managed to get ten (unnamed in the New York Times article) UK chefs to back up their assertion. The chefs did however, say that while sharp tips were not necessary on long chef’s knives, they were useful on short knives.

Not surprisingly, Anthony Bourdain, whom one can always expect to have something colorful to say on any subject, weighed in with the opinion that the chef’s knife is an extension of a chef’s hands, and is not an object whose design should be controlled by bureaucrats

I have to agree with Bourdain on this one.

First of all, anyone who says that there is no reason for a chef’s knife to have a pointed tip either has never used one, or should not be using one. I would really like to know the names of these ten UK chefs so that I could find out what they do in a kitchen, because I suspect it has nothing to do with cooking. If they really believe that no long knife needs to have a pointed tip, then they need to go out and take a knife skills class in some reputable culinary school, because they have a buggered-up idea of how knives are used in the kitchen. The pointed tip on a chef’s knife is not there as an arbitrary feature because historically people speared their meat and ate it off the points of dirks. It is there to make the knife more versatile than a blunted tipped knife would be. Furthermore, the sharp tip is absolutely essentially on two other long-bladed kitchen knives–the boning knife and the filet knife, both of which come equipped with extremely sharp, long, slender, flexible blades, the tips of which come to a very fine, definite point.

It is true that the sharp tips on chef’s knives are not used in every cutting technique that a chef might use in his or her daily routine–the chef’s knife is primarily used to cut with the long edge of the blade. One does very little cutting on vegetables using the tip, though, I do find it useful in mincing garlic and finely dicing onions. However, when trimming or boning some meats, I find the sharp tip to be not only useful in expanding the agility of the knife, but it can keep me from having to reach out for the boning knife, especially if I am working on a chicken breast. For me, that means one less knife to wash in the middle of preparing dinner.

But even if we were to decide collectively that the pointy tip is not necessary on a chef’s knife, there is still the issue of a boning knives and filet knives to consider.

And consider it we must. One cannot effectively bone a chicken, a lamb chop or a leg of lamb without using the tip of a boning knife. The same goes with using the filet knife on fish: it is simply not possible, and because of that, I wonder of these ten chefs have ever used such a knife properly in their lives. Perhaps they are pastry chefs, or maybe they are vegetarians, because frankly, no cook who has ever prepared meat would make such a boneheaded comment.

The doctors who wrote the article would probably be appalled to see a good chef or butcher at work with a boning knife; there are techniques where one holds the knife like a dagger, with the edge of the knife perpendicular to the wrist. One leads with the tip of the knife, and makes cutting motions which are dependant upon the long, pointed, flexible tip, drawing it along the meat in order to separate it from the bone. At times, the angle of the knife blade is very close to the chef’s wrist–in fact, the motion for this sort of cutting is all in the wrist and the shoulder, and nimble manipulation is quite possible, in large part because of the design of the boning knife’s blade.

But beyond the necessity of having long bladed pointed knives in the kitchen, there is the fact that a short-bladed knife with a pointed tip is just as effective as a murder weapon as a long-bladed knife. One doesn’t need a ten inch chef’s knife to open up the carotid artery in a person; in fact, a surgically-sharp paring knife, with a blade under three inches long would not only work adequately for the job, but it would be superb at it, as the artery is not even three inches below the surface of the skin.

And even the ten chefs cited by the overly zealous doctors admitted that paring knives with points are useful in the kitchen. Not only do they peel vegetables, but they create precisely carved garnishes, for example.

In the end, the doctors’ opinion just doesn’t hold up to intense scrutiny. Actually, it doesn’t even hold up to lackadaisical scrutiny. (I haven’t even had coffee yet, and am poking holes in it.)

Yes, kitchen knives may have been used to commit sixteen fatal attacks and fifteen non-fatal attacks in the first couple of weeks of 2005 in the UK, but how many other times were they safely and non-violently used in the kitchens across that country in that same period of time?

How many cases of vehicular homicide occurred in that same time period? How many heavy blunt objects such as say, hammers, were used to kill people? How many fire pokers? How many household chemicals were used to poison people? How many nylon stockings were used to strangle someone?

Yet, there are not calls to ban hammers, fire pokers, household cleansers and panty hose.

It all comes down to this: if someone wants to kill someone else, they will find a way to do it. Human beings are incredibly creative when they are motivated by desperation, and unfortunately one of the things that we are really good at is coming up with ways to kill each other.

The reason that the violent crime rate is rising has nothing to do with kitchen knives, and everything to do with social issues. Banning the knives will do nothing to stem the violence–it will only change the form in which it occurs. It is so facile to believe that if we only take knives away from people, then there will be no more stabbings. But knives are not the problem.

People are the problem.

Yes, knives are dangerous tools, ones that can be used for both good and ill.

They can be used to create culinary works of art, or just put supper on the table. They can also be used to murder another human being. Such is the way of tools–seldom are they useful for only one purpose; however, just because they can be used for nefarious purposes does not negate the good that comes of using them properly.

Leave the kitchen knives of the world where they belong–in the hands of culinary professionals and home cooks, where they do much more good than harm.

4 Comments

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  1. Gotta love how a few idiots can ruin it for everybody. Banning sale of an object is not going to cut down on crime. It is going to increase it from all the people selling the item illegally. Better to learn how better to deal with the people causing the problem. They could kill you with a butter knife if they wanted. I’m not a cook myself (boy am I not a cook… my boyfriend still harasses me about some of the stupid mistakes I’ve made in the kitchen), but I can still see where this would cause a problem for chefs out there. Different knives are made the way they are for a reason….

    And really, if they force the tips to be blunted, but the cutting edge is still there, now you’ve got people able to go around still killing, but by slicing instead of stabbing….

    And I am sure Bryian could give many more examples of “innocent” household items that can just as easy be used as instruments of violence. :P

    Comment by Karyl — May 27, 2005 #

  2. Just give them all GUNS and everyone will feel safer like we do here in the United States…

    Comment by artcargirl — May 27, 2005 #

  3. That’s the point Theresa. They’ve banned guns in the UK.

    I think there’s been a thread on the Fabulist about the current movement to ban swords next. I think this will get tacked onto that.

    Every piece of technology ever developed, from opposable thumbs, to pointed sticks, to intercontinental ballistic missles, to written language is a potential weapon. It’s the nature of the beast. Development means damage…or can anyway. I can, take a 300 pound weight lifter to his knees with a ball point pen. (what to do with him then is a good question though.)

    Point is, psycho people will find ways to kill other people, and no amount of banning guns, swords, kitchen knives, cork screws, dental floss, or the blunted end of a 6 foot Belkin USB-2 device cable will make a difference in that.

    I could banter on and on about prevention, education, and the perils of villification, but I fogot my soapbox, and I feel like I’d most likely be preaching to the choir, anyway.

    Comment by Dan Trout — May 29, 2005 #

  4. Hey, Karyl!

    I don’t figure I need Bry to tell us ways to kill folks with household items–I’m plenty able to come up with plenty of methods myself. In fact, we used to muse in culinary school, when left to our own devices, about how many ways we could off a random person (usually it was the class troublemaker or lazy-butt who didn’t do his fair share of cleaning at the end of class) using only food items, kitchen appliances, equipment or the contents of our knife kits. It was a morbid sort of thing to talk about, but it got us through peeling sixty pounds of potatoes or slicing cases of mushrooms at a stretch.

    Yeah, Theresa–I thought of that one myself. If they don’t want people misusing kitchen tools, then bloody well give them something that is made to kill people–handguns. It is more efficient and takes less skill to use.

    (I am not serious, btw–that there was meant as an ironic statement.)

    Dan–you are preaching to the choir, but you preach well.

    At any rate, if I were in the UK, they’d have to pry my chef’s knife from my cold, dead fingers….

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — June 4, 2005 #

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