1940s Archive

Carving is an Art

Originally Published November 1948

The Art of Carving is the science of carving. One must understand anatomy, have a steady hand, a sure eye, and extreme patience—to say nothing of a good sense of showmanship—to be a good carver. Of course, tools and equipment are important attributes, but they must be guided by sensitivity, awareness, and complete control.

Let us consider first of all carving equipment. Our functional age has brought a wealth of carving material, magnificently wrought, balanced, and plain, to a high degree of perfection. I have experimented and demonstrated with a great variety of today's cutlery and find it, for the most part, easy to handle, simple to keep in condition, and most efficient. It has been my experience, however, that these contemporary precision instruments need as careful attention as a surgeon's tools. Too often, however, they are treated with complete carelessness and are often abused.

It is, alas, in eight out of ten instances, the women who are responsible rather than the men. A man may supply himself with a fine set of knives for all purposes, but it usually remains for the distaff side of the house to divert their function. I have seen delicate, hollow-ground knives which have been used to cut through bones or for chopping and which soon resembled a cross saw. I have shuddered to see the delicate and finely honed edge of a carving knife made blunt and broken by being used for an all-purpose knife or by being thrust into a patent sharpener. A hollow-ground or hand-made magnesium steel knife needs as careful attention as a straight-edged razor. Most modern knives are built for long, careful service and require sharpening only once or twice during the course of a year. There are rigid rules for sharpening all contemporary cutlery which should be followed to the letter. Rules for the proper care of cutlery almost invariably come along with the modern knives. Do not think that because you have always sharpened your old all-purpose kitchen knives on an old crock or on a patented sharpener, you can use a delicate, highly styled instrument the same way. Reserve these knives for the functions for which they were made and use heavy-duty knives for all other purposes.

I am a great believer in having a set of knives to be used for different types of carving. At this season of the year when the leaves have turned and there is a frosty breeze on the back of your neck, your thoughts naturally turn to the hunting season and to the game that is the reward for the days in the field. A game dinner with a bottle of good wine is one of the most satisfying and delightful experiences in the gastronomic calendar. How often has just such a dinner been ruined completely by having badly hacked hunks of a perfectly cooked bird served at table. Game, above all else, needs precision instruments, careful attention, and excellent craftsmanship.

There are certain small birds in the game lists, all of which follow in a certain pattern as far as their carving and serving are concerned. These are the full-breasted birds which have small wings and legs but which are too large to be served as a single portion. Then again, there are the larger game birds such as the heavier variety of duck, wild goose, and wild turkey. These, if they are tender and well cooked, should be sliced perfectly and disjointed carefully at table.

Such performances of carving skill require specialized equipment. Carving shears are one very necessary adjunct. This highly specialized piece of cutlery not only aids in performing a thoroughly neat job, but also saves the delicate edges of your finest knives. They are equipped with one smooth blade and one saw-toothed blade, with a special section between the blades near the handle for cutting through small bones. Carving shears are worked with the aid of a heavy spring and are exceedingly simple to use. In addition to shears, one must have a heavy fork or holder with which one may grip and hold a bird securely. Most “carving sets” provide you with a fork which may be beautiful but most times is as useless as a wooden gun. Try to find a heavy fork or try out any of the roast or poultry holders which you find on the market these days until you find one that suits your grip and is properly weighted for your personal use. For small birds, a thin-bladed knife or a small-sized “French” knife is the ideal tool. For larger birds, you will need a knife with a longer blade for general slicing. I think if I were given my choice of all knives available, I should choose a series of various sizes of “French” knives with their triangular, well-balanced blades. However, you may find that a very thin, flexible blade suits your own particular style of carving better than any other.

Carving wild duck always seems to be a difficult problem for most men and women. If it is a small bird, you may use the carving shears to cut the duck in halves or quarters for service. This is an exceedingly simple operation. Adjust the carving shears at the line of the breastbone and cut straight across the breast to the neck through the flesh and the bone. Turn the duck and cut down through the backbone until the duck is severed. If you wish to cut each half in two, grip well with your fork—or hold the leg with your hand if you wish—and cut from the middle of the backbone to the middle of the breastbone. In this way you may serve one person with the wing quarter, another with the leg and thigh quarter, and provide each person with a certain amount of the breast meat.

For another duck serving, grip the duck well with your fork or holder and with your carving shears or with a small, sharp knife remove the two legs and thighs. If you use a sharp knife, cut between the leg and the carcass until you come to the joint. Cut through the joint with the carving shears or sever it with a sharp knife, being careful not to cut the bone with the knife but merely to sever the joint. Hold the duck firmly with the fork or holder and make an incision at the center of the breastbone, cutting through the flesh the entire length of the bird. Then, progressing from the outside of the bird toward the center bone, cut thin slices of the breast from each side. After you have removed all the slices of breast meat, remove the two wings with the carving shears or by cutting through to the joint and disjointing with a sharp knife. You may cut the carcass into pieces with the shears if you wish; many people enjoy the backbone, feeling that it has more true flavor than any other part of the bird. The wings and legs are not disjointed but served to those who relish that particular part of the bird.

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