In Sitto’s little galley kitchen in her apartment in Lansing, there were predictable things: the yellow phone, the tall stool with a soft seat and back, the miniature gardening set with frogs painted on it hanging on the wall. And her chef’s knife. Sitto’s knife was never, not ever placed in the drawer but instead leaned against the side of her sink. Here it was always rinsed and placed so it would be within reach at all times. Sitto used her knife so frequently that it made no sense to put it in the drawer only to take it out minutes later.

The presence of the knife, like Sitto herself, was dependable. Always going to be there, sink-side, ready to go when you need her. But that knife was so dull it made even simple jobs a serious task. I remember Sitto trying to cut open a cantaloupe and her breath heavy at the challenge of it all. And I remember her calling me over, once I was old and tall enough, to make the cuts in her baklawa for her. Such pressure, with her standing over me and telling me, in a loving scold, to push down harder, to cut, to cut, and to cut some more.

I find that I keep my trusty chef’s knife at the ready too, perched on the side of the sink, usually with a just-rinsed look about it. Perhaps that’s in hopes that I will become more like the knife, more like Sitto, always ready to get the job done. We use our big knives for all sorts of work, from slicing through racks of lamb like butter which we’ll do for Easter, and feeling so satisfied when we do, to chopping a good handful of mint leaves down to a beautiful mince, releasing the headiest herbal scent of them all.

But unlike Sitto, I keep my knife razor-sharp. I do use the honing rod to realign the edge, but this is not to be mistaken for sharpening. Sharpening is a different deal altogether, and takes all knife-work to higher, and easier, ground. Of course, this means one has to be ready to take a few war wounds like I did throughout cooking school and especially on the day of my final practical exam, but the nicks and cuts are worth it to be able to cut through anything with ease. If you don’t have one 10-inch chef’s knife in your repertoire, discover it, and you’ll wonder how you got along before. Mine (well, it does belong to the sister, but she loaned it to me when I went off to San Francisco and hasn’t once inquired after it, because that’s just the way she is) is Wusthof, but I have several Shun knives and consider those my all-time favorite for the perfect balance of weight in the handle, as well as the special rounded shape, which fits perfectly in my paw.

I’ll never forget the first time I cut raw meat or baklawa with a truly sharp knife and realized that cutting with Sitto’s dull knife all those years was something not far from cruel. But then those tough cuts were like tough love, and now that I have my very sharp, big chef’s knife, I have the appreciation of one who has gone without.

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