Chinese fire drill

Between the last version and the current version of several beloved kitchen and other gadgets I own, I can read the history of the manufacturing shift from the US to China, and it’s a story that is a real letdown.

    • Say your company makes blenders and has a great product. But to produce the blender in the US would cost $40. Sell it to the department and discount stores for $60 and they have to sell it for $120. Since you aren’t Waring, and you don’t want to spend the money on a retro-modern design to justify the price, you can’t charge that much. People


     they want Made in America products, but they vote with their wallets.

So you put out feelers to China, where you can manufacture it for $15. Your problem seems solved. You outline rigorous specifications, make factory visits and arrange for someone to be on hand occasionally for the manufacturing. The first samples look great. Maybe the housing seems a little thin or brittle, but by this time, the schedule is running out of days, so you green light it.

    The blender shipment floats on the slow boat from China to Long Beach for 80 days. During that time, the lab discovers that the blender’s seal doesn’t really seal properly, because even though the right rubber/polymer was used, the tensile strength of the seals made in China doesn’t quite meet what’s needed. So liquid leaks when the unit is set on “low.” But by the time someone discovers this, it’s too late.

I just made up the scenario, but consider it a myth — not true itself, but generally speaking, truthy.  I’ve seen it in my kitchen and in the bath, where a set of hot rollers identical to the previous, 10-year-old set, failed within months. Oh, they still get hot, but the velvet layer covering the searing hot metal wore off within a couple of months. I kept the old rollers, still velvety after 10 years, and threw out the new ones. I couldn’t even find a consumer number for the hot rollers, and I can understand why. You only need to visit Amazon and read page after page of product reviewsto see that the China problem affects all kinds of products.

    I’ve seen the same thing in book printing, so much of which has shifted to China. Besides price, there are attractive reasons to print in China: hand work is cheaper, meaning die-cut books shaped like frying pans or t-shirts are affordable. Sewn-in bookmark ribbons are cheaper. China hasn’t outlawed dioxin or inks with heavy metals, so the paper is blinding white and the colors are rich and saturated. You can see the seductive logic.

But what if the lavender tablecloth in the cover photo that’s perfectly coordinated with the flower arrangement sitting on it actually prints closer to lilac? If you think the Junior League president won’t notice, then you haven’t met many Junior League presidents in the throes of a book project.


  • What if the end sheets are technically the right paper, but it’s got a more open molecular structure than paper used by US printers, and absorbs all the ink so the color doesn’t match the chip, and isn’t even close? Hold it up next to a Rainbow endsheet, and it looks like school children tinted unbleached paper towels with food coloring.
  • What if the colored sidebars are varying shades of the PMS color, rather than all identical?
  • And if you get a sample that’s unacceptable, well, it was sent via FedEx three days ago, and by the time you call, it will be day after tomorrow, so if you want to hold on to your scheduled print slot, you’re under pressure not to make non-critical changes.
        The Oster toaster in the photo above actually does a good job of toasting, but the LED indicator light for “toast” burned out after 1 year of occasional use, and now you have to push the button twice so you can be sure you’re not accidentally setting the toaster for a frozen bagel. Again and again in testing equipment for Fine Cooking, I encounter  major brand-name products whose shoddy workmanship must cause eye twitching and insomnia among the executives who approved the prototype.
  • I can only lay it at your feet, consumers. Quit cheaping out on appliances and buy well-made things. Everyone will be happier in the end.


Acey Juicey

If you loved the Pla-Doh Fun Factory as a child, then you’re a great candidate for a juicer. Feed something in and it comes out as something else. It makes work feel like play.

    • Days of meticulous work squeezed into one long evening late in the summer when some beloved old friends gathered to

test juicers

    •  for

Fine Cooking magazine

     (the issue is currently on the newsstand). We put a mountain of fruits and vegetables into the maws and hoppers of more than a dozen of these contraptions. Once you start, it’s hard to stop. Seriously, it’s like a Fun Factory that turns out the healthiest imaginable beverage.

Here was the oddest looking juicer, dubbed Marvin, the paranoid android in Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

With the weather so hot, and so much juice on hand, what else could we do but make refreshing bellinis, watermelon daiquiris and cherry popsicles? Kale juice and beet juice, though — we had to draw the line. Beets are very dirtlike in flavor , so we crossed them off the happy hour menu, and kale juice is just the very taste of extreme personal self-discipline.  Nothing wrong with that, but that’s what January is for.

The competition came down to factors like ease of cleaning, size of footprint and perceived sturdiness. Because every one of those juicers made floods of juice in seconds, which is basically what you want in a juicer.

The Best Second-Place Finish Ever

I was recently the runner up in a blogging competition here. I entered an essay contest aimed at picking a blogger to attend the International Housewares Show. I really wanted to go, so I wrote about my filthy secret: I have a lot of crappy kitchen gear. Considering what I do for a living, it’s shameful that I own a 1989 grocery store can opener and some Guardianware aluminum pots that my granny bought from a divorcing couple in 1942. I wrote about how I marched right out and purchased a Wusthof Trident vegetable peeler about 11 years ago, and it changed my life. I should attend the housewares show, I wrote, because I can totally channel the power and excitement of awesome kitchen gear.

Never mind that I couldn’t actually attend the housewares show, since I would be in New Orleans. I never win anything, so I figured it was harmless enough to enter.

They called a few days after I submitted. I missed the call, so I was really nervous by the time we connected. I spent a lot of psychic energy thinking of how I would say, “Thanks for choosing me! I can’t go to Chicago.”

When I finally connected with the pubescent-voiced customer service manager, the news was sosososo good. I didn’t win the blogging trip, but they liked my writing, and they felt bad about my kitchen tools, so even though it wasn’t part of the original rules, they wanted to give me a big ole gift certificate to spend on their site! Is that the nicest thing? Aren’t they the bestest cooking gear website people ever? I want All-Clad measuring cups, a silpat muffin tin, a thermal Pyrex dish carrier. So, what should I get?  What would you get?