Reflections on Stainless Steel

For the last several years our family has been having our meals off Corelle dinner plates. Those spanking new-looking, untarnishable, unbreakable symbols of modernity in a middle-class household. The virgin-white affairs with tiny floral prints. Not that it was always like that, the precursor to this was Melamine, which over a period degenerated into a commodity. Something which got sold by the kilos off the footpaths of Dadar and Karolbagh. Or Commercial Street and Pondy Bazaar in the South.

And prior to that was stainless steel! That pristine iron alloy!

A household using stainless steel vessels had “arrived”. That was the predominant feeling when I was growing up in a small town, Jamshedpur, way back in early 70’s! Households used different kinds of utensils. And that, for keen observers, marked a sharp class difference.

Enamelled dishes were meant for household pets. Period!

Brassware was old-fashioned and were used only during pujas at home and other ceremonial occasions like marriage ceremonies, Satyanarayan Bhagwan Kathas etc.

Though light in weight, low cost and heat-efficient, aluminum vessels were considered infra-dig. I remember the arrival of the first pressure cooker into our household. As is the norm, the cooker was made of aluminum, and for good reasons. While the possession of a pressure cooker was a matter of pride, perhaps the joy would have been far greater were it to be made of stainless steel.

Chinaware was too modern and households which were lucky to have these would have them on perpetual display in a cabinet. God forbid if a plate were to break or chip! But even a damaged plate was put to use. Essentially reserved for domestic help. Or for those rare occasions when we, the siblings, would consume non-vegetarian food at home. The non-veg. stuff of course was never cooked at home but cooked and delivered by a generous neighbour!

Stainless steel was so very much “in”. Here was something which was, well, “stain”-less. It would not impart a flavor of its own to the food, and it looked silver! Just the right accessories to the dining tables which were just about gaining entry into middle-class households. There were plates and half-plates and quarter plates, katoris and glasses, spoons of various sizes and ladles for all applications and varying sizes of bartans for boiling milk, setting curd etc. There was a temporary fad for stainless steel tea-cups with insulated walls which mercifully faded very soon

When I was a kid I would insist on having my meals off a specific plate. You will wonder what distinguished one plate from another. There was one unique feature, the engraved name on the plate. Whenever new vessels were bought, our mother, mai, would have names engraved on them. Typically, names of her children. This service was provided by the shopkeeper gratis. The name would be written on a piece of paper for the reference of the engraver who would pull out his machine and diligently set to work. Soon enough the “customized” dinner plate was ready. Different vessels had different engraving locations; the outer periphery on the reverse for the plate. In case of a katori, the name showed up on top of the outer surface close to the edges. So I had at least one thali and one katori with my name and I was quite possessive of these! Initially the thali was new and all-shining. And when the metal dulled and wore with the ravages of time (and strong doses of cleaning powder), the engraving would nearly vanish and it was a game to figure out from the faded lettering which plate “belonged” to whom!

A shiny thali had one more rather creative use; it would serve as a mirror when new. With passage of time the surface would get dulled and the plate would lose its original shape and then the reflection in the plate was reminiscent of the “Hall of Horrors” which one would visit in the melas. The reflection would come out all distorted and I had hours of fun making funny faces and watching the contorted, and faded, images on the plates!

Stainless Steel was an all purpose gifting idea, the quantity and quality of steel being determined by the “weight” of the occasion (annaprashan or someone’s daughter’s wedding). A katori and chammach would do for the former while a set of six dinner plates would be more suited for the latter. The gift also depended on the strength of the relationship enjoyed. If the kid enjoying the annaprashan was of a close relative’s, the katori and chammach could even be a silver affair or at least a set of Johnson’s Baby products along with the stainless steel katori et al. Similarly, for a close relative’s daughter’s wedding, a stainless steel dinner set was in order. There were a few pre-packaged brands available, the popular one being from SAIL (the “Salem steel” set). My marriage brought with it my wife, a welcome addition to my hitherto bachelor’s den. And with my wife and her many suitcases of her clothes, arrived a most welcome enhancement for my kitchen, a whole new shiny set of stainless steel utensils and vessels!

Which brings me to a story which sounds amusing now. I had my first invite to a birthday party. I must have been in Std One or Two. Those days, birthday celebrations were limited to one’s family and a special meal cooked at home for all to relish. Maybe a book of two gifted by parents. No hoopla of birthday cakes, balloons or streamers. No kids invited either. And here I was all agog with excitement about this friend’s birthday party. But the problem was, while I knew one had to carry a gift, I had no idea what gift to give. Parents had the solution, a stainless steel katori, of course. I still remember the amazement on my friend’s face as he unwrapped the pink gift wrapper off the katori. I do not know what he did with it later, but for that evening, the katori was displayed among all the books and toys and teddys he had received! I was a bit embarrassed, but this embarrassment was soon forgotten among the fun and games. I was a wiser man afterwards, no more stainless steel katoris for a classmate’s birthday party!

Now, thinking back, stainless steel had a kind of permanence. A symbol of middle class solidity. Imperishable, indestructible, inviolate. A “stainless-ness” a middle class family covets. That I think we lack in the ceramic versions (whether melamine or Corelle). Stainless Steel had a sonorous “ring” to it- a certain tone of voice if you please- which heralded to the world that the user family had arrived! The ceramic versions announce fragility (Corelle claims apart), the ephemeral nature of relationships nowadays.

Give me stainless steel, anyday!

PS: As luck would have it, At my engineering college at BHU, Varanasi, I studied Metallurgy- the engineering science dealing with metals and alloys. Including stainless steel. For the life of me I do not remember the composition of the steel alloy beyond a cryptic set of digits, 18:8.

Do not even remind me of the dreaded iron-carbon diagram. That, dear readers, is another story!

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6 Responses to Reflections on Stainless Steel

  1. Amit Jain says:

    It is amazing that in India the stainless steel utensils were considered a symbol of prosperity. In the US, metal utensils are used by prisoners (and campers). They probably look at our usage of stainless steel vessels as symbols of poverty (metal = longevity). I guess it is all relative.

  2. santoshojha says:

    Intriguing! Never thought of it like that!

  3. R.Nair says:

    Loved the article for the memories it brings back.
    R.Nair

  4. Sanjeev Roy says:

    My theory on popularity of the stainless steel in India is that Stainless Steel offered the best overall solution to the alterntive options available:

    (1) Ceramic (or Chini-mitti) was considered impure/”Jootha” because eating in a used ceramic plate was tantamount to re-using your kulhad/ chukkad. The overridding logic being “mitti is mitti” and should not be reused. It was brittle and hence expensive to maintain.

    (2) Brass was expensive and hence restricted to a few items per household.

    (3) “Phool” or Bell metal crockery in vogue in 1800s was brittle and subject to breakage. “Phool”is still popular in the villages.

    (4) Enamelled crockery has the same market perception as the Chini mitti. “dogs bowl” was the most popular use.

    (5) Copper was expensive and subject to corrosion, deposit formation and discoloration.

    (6) Aluminium was not as smooth/shiny and hence had an inferior perception.

    (7) “loha” did not have the lustre and was subject to rusting and not considered “shudh” unless you put it in fire.

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