My quirky interest in antique kitchen utensils, especially cheese graters, started with my love for my mother’s old square box grater with a handle that she used throughout her life. When I was a young adult, I would search out little antique shops in California for other retro graters to give to my mother, who was an artist and interior designer. After she passed away, all the utensils I had given to her suddenly became my collection. My interest became an obsession. Since then I have picked up graters (also known as shredders and slicers) in England, Scotland, France, and Canada.
For years I stuck to my $3 max price limit for each find, but that has now grown to $8 (much slower than the rate of inflation). All of the graters seem to inspire stories, as cherished pieces of family kitchens. When I recently displayed the collection at a local cheese conference, I loved hearing everyone’s memories of which ones their grandmothers or grandfathers used to grate cheese over Sunday spaghetti, or hearing “my mother had that one,” along with reports of many first knuckle-grating experiences.
Vintage cheese graters that don’t display a patent are usually older than those that have imprints of patent numbers or patents pending. Unfortunately, many of the original utensil companies that created classic cheese graters have disappeared.
Both François Boullier and Isaac Hunt are variously credited with inventing the cheese grater in the 1540s. In France Boullier made his first grater from pewter to help households stretch budgets and take advantage of excess cheese, much of which aged rapidly. Centuries later, during the Great Depression in the 1920s, when food was scarce and home cooks sought to make dishes look more ample than they were, Jeffrey Taylor of Philadelphia heard of Boullier’s invention and made his own greater cheese grater by sharpening the holes of a metal shower drain. Yum!
Since then, various inventors, designers, and utensil companies have continually offered remodeled graters, as if newer is always better. But I can tell you that sometimes old works best. I still reach for my mother’s reliable box grater.