I was always fascinated with the “Pioneer’s Park” near my house when I was growing up. You could walk around and see ladies churning butter by hand, men dressed up like Civil War soldiers, a blacksmith, and an old house with all the period furnishings. There is still something interesting about “simpler” times when things were done by hand and with great care. Of course, today things could be considered simpler because they don’t have to be made by hand and take little or no effort on our part to prepare.
You could imagine my excitement last Saturday morning, when I was sitting in the backyard of my brother’s Northwest Chicago home while setting up my Caja China for his housewarming party and heard the dull clanking of a bell in the distance. Tony, a middle-aged Italian American who grew up in the neighborhood, told me that he hadn’t heard that bell for about 10 years. He said it was the knife-sharpening man. Knife-sharpening man! How cool is that!
I ran out to the front of the house to find this little old man who must have been in his mid- to late 80s, pushing an antique cart with a giant flywheel and several stone sharpening wheels on it. The little old man looked at me with his giant Elton John sunglasses and dust mask. I couldn’t tell if he was more shocked of me than I was of his presence. (My enthusiasm can sometimes be overwhelming.) I told him that I had a knife for him to sharpen and ran to grab it from the backyard. I was so happy I had a knife, but being the avid amateur photographer, I was bummed I didn’t have my camera! I looked online for an image close to what my knife sharpener’s cart looked like and found this picture from the South Side of Chicago, circa 1968.
Thanks to e15rimac on Flickr for permission to use his picture of a knife-sharpener man from “back in the day.” My knife-sharpener man and his cart looked at least 40 years older.
It was such a sight to see the man take my cleaver, mount his sharpening machine, and then pump his little feet on the pedals of the big flywheel, the sparks flying from the steel blade. Traffic on Addison Street was slowing down to see this living museum piece in action. After a long turn on the big sharpening wheel, the cleaver made its way to the smaller wheel where it was honed; after that a little handheld stone that looked like a big rubber eraser was rubbed up and down the blade.
A very sharp cleaver! And a very excited chef. Some things to keep in my mind if you run into the knife-sharpening man… First, if you have a nice set of Henckels knives or any expensive knives with razor-sharp edges, you may not want to have them sharpened by the knife-sharpener man. He is, after all, using giant stones that essentially grind the edge of your knife. You would want to use a commercial-type knife or in my case, a solid steel cleaver. Big scissors and lawnmower blades are other items that would be well suited for the wheels of the knife-sharpening man.
Later that night, while sitting around the fire, after dining on roasted pork chopped up with my newly sharpened cleaver, Tony and his cronies talked about the old days in the neighborhood, when the knife guy, the berry guy, and the ice guy used to travel up and down the streets. They also talked about kicking pigs’ heads around during pig roasts and how they used to get tattoos at Jade Dragon way back in the ’70s. I don’t know, call me old fashioned, but the knife-sharpening man story is still the most memorable of the day.