Western Pa. author's new book looks at old 'Kitchen Things'

Sometimes 2 plus 2 can equal 5, as on those rare occasions when you seem to get more than you paid for. The book, "Kitchen Things: An Album of Vintage Utensils and Farm-Kitchen Recipes" by Richard Snodgrass, (Skyhorse, $29.95) is such a thing. It is equal parts art photography and captivating prose -- history, research, wry humor, photographer's perspective, storytelling and an affectionate memoir of family. It even has recipes.

And if you are of a certain age, your eyes might mist, as mine did, when you turn a page and recall a kitchen tool used long ago by your mom, aunt or grandmother. Maybe you still have and use some of their utensils. I do.

Many of the vintage objects in the book were found in flea markets and garage sales or borrowed from friends. But the real treasure-trove came from the kitchens of his family and the family farm of his wife, Marty, outside Hickory in Washington County. Most of them date from the 1830s, '40s and '50s, though some reach back to the early 1900s. Mason jars, graters, mashers, knives, peelers, skillets, clothespins and even the Cinderella of the sink, a dishrag. Before Mr. Snodgrass' lens, each takes a star-turn and becomes art.

His first photo was taken innocently enough. He was hanging out in the kitchen while Marty made supper in their Mount Washington home. A black and white pepper shaker, a memento from the country diner run by her family, caught his eye. He took it upstairs to his study and made a photograph. After returning it to the kitchen, he had a little think about it. Then he choose a favorite wooden spoon, worn down from use by a family of cooks, and made the second photograph.

And something clicked besides the shutter in his camera.

For years, Mr. Snodgrass had taken art photography of interiors. "My intention was to portray the people who lived in a particular place, not by showing them, but by showing their objects," he says. "I thought of the images as stage settings after the players had exited, because I think the spirit of a person transfers to objects that surround them. That said, I wondered if the same could be true for a single object."

He began taking the black-and-white "portraits" in 2004. Many of his photo essays originally appeared in the Western Pennsylvania food and lifestyle magazine, TABLE, where he is a regular contributor.

He believes that we can learn from things, that they have experiences and stories to tell. "Things, like people, have a life cycle," he says. "There is birth when they are made, a youth when they are fresh and new, a maturity when they're broken in and at the height of use, and finally, they get old and broken and are no longer useful."

The understated photographs were taken simply. "The background was a black T-shirt held in place with duct tape," says Mr. Snodgrass. "There were two light sources: to the left, a three-tube light box standing on edge; to the right, a goose-neck desk lamp with a daylight bulb. To suspend the objects for a sense of space, and separation from the background, I used black string threaded through openings. I used a single-lens Rolleiflex. Later, I replaced the makeshift lighting and the Rollei with a digital Nikon."

He gets personal, as well as up close, with his subjects. Before he begins, he asks each of them, "May I take your image?" (To date, none has refused.)

But wait, what's that all about, asking a thing's permission to take its photo? Seriously?

"Yes," he says. "I began to do that when I was compiling 'An Uncommon Field,' a photographic commemoration of the Flight 93 Temporary Memorial," he says. "I deeply felt that there were spirits there, and I asked permission before I took photos. It has stayed with me."

Mr. Snodgrass is no stranger to the arts. He has been a writer/photographer for all his professional life, including a 20-year stint as a writer/producer for the advertising and public relations firm, MARC USA.

Each beautiful but stark image of the utensils in "Kitchen Things" is paired with a short-short essay revolving around an ensemble cast of storytelling characters. All family. There is banter between the author and Marty, keeping the dialogue real and grounded. There are exchanges and fond remembrances with his mother-in-law, The Legendary Chub. (She earned that nickname as a toddler after her photo, captioned "Chubby," won a baby contest in the local newspaper.)

There's plenty to learn, too. He cites some 146 sources and resources. Did you know that early pies with crust coverings were called coffyns or coffins, and open pies were called traps? Did you know that the first can openers were used only by grocers who removed lids before the customer was allowed to carry the cans home?

Back in the day, most cooks had a recipe box, stuffed with handwritten cards. Two sections of the book are devoted to recipes that remain familiar as stalwarts of community cookbooks: Creamed potatoes, lima bake, pumpkin tea bread, baked beans and canned salmon loaf.

For example, here's how to make Rink-tum-ditty: "2 onions diced and cooked slowly in 2 tbsps. butter. Melt 1/2 lb. cheese in pan over low fire. Add onions to cheese, then add 3 beaten eggs and 1 cup of milk and cook slowly until thick. Serve immediately on toasted bread or crackers. Garnish with paprika, if you like."

The Legendary Chub talks about her collection. "These are basically farm recipes," she says. "Back when they were collected, in the '30s up on through the '60s, farm wives didn't usually have a car at their disposal, so they couldn't simply go to the market any time they needed something. They had to have a larder, well-stocked with basics and essentials, and then make do with what they had on hand, what was either growing in the garden or put up in jars."

This is not a book to bury in the pile by the bedside. Keep it out where family and friends can enjoy it, slowly turn its pages. Maybe they will share their own kitchen stories.

Do you have a favorite vintage kitchen utensil? Will you tell us about it? Email food@post-gazette.com, or write to Food at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. We'll share the best responses.

Marlene Parrish: marleneparrish@icloud.com or 412-481-1620.


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