At your convenience: the whisk

Categories: History of food

Angela Clutton explores how the development of kitchen appliances after 1918 both stemmed from and influenced the changing role of women. This time, the whisk

I bet you have a metal balloon whisk knocking about somewhere in your kitchen. Maybe a couple, possibly of different types. It can feel like the hard-work choice for those of us who also have some kind of electric whisking apparatus, yet still it is there. A simple, seemingly humble, centuries-enduring piece of kitchen equipment whose story says so much about how British kitchens and lives have changed.

Up until the balloon whisk’s arrival, the usual way to whisk would have been to tie together birch twigs with some branches from a peach tree, if you had them, and maybe a strip or two of lemon zest. Cream or meringues suffused with subtle undertones of peach and lemon from the whisking elements sounds glorious—but this is the very opposite of labour-saving. In well-to-do houses when there was a lot to be whisked and it would have taken hours to get the job done, the female domestic-staff worked in teams to keep their whisking muscle fresh. When the balloon whisk came on the scene, what it lacked in flavour-imbuing romance will have been more than made up for with the relative speed and ease of its whisking.

As society changed in the Victorian years leading up to the early 20th century, the new middle classes couldn’t count on fleets of arms to do their whisking (and the ladies of the house didn’t much fancy it either). The hunt was on for an even quicker way to whisk. That led to the rotary whisk: a handle that when turned rotates a wheel, that then spins TWO whisks together. Double whisking power! A breakthrough. Albeit one that sometimes jammed and gave perilously little control of the bowl, as you needed to use both hands to operate the rotary beater.

Vintage advert for an electric food mixer

Fundamental changes
The balloon whisk and the rotary took care of whisking duties until after the second world war when—as with so much of life in the home—there were huge and exciting developments. It feels a little silly to talk so seriously about whisks in terms of fundamental changes in society. But it isn’t silly at all; the seemingly small things that changed say so much about our social priorities.

While electric mixers of sorts have been around since the late 19th century, it wasn’t until 1947 when Kenneth Wood saw that the domestic mood was changing and set about inventing a machine to relieve the everyday cook of arduous kitchen tasks. In 1950, the Kenwood Chef was born: complete with twin beaters and a whisk, it was the first electric food mixer unit to see widespread commercial success in Britain.

Kenwood’s increasing popularity through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s chimed perfectly with the changing priorities of women in and out of the home: social aspiration, twinned with a desire to save on domestic perspiration. The Kenwood mixer unit provided housewives with both. Having one on the kitchen side was a sign you were modern and doing well enough to afford one. At the press of a button, whisking took a matter of minutes, with barely any elbow-grease needed at all.

Kitchen revolution
We didn’t have a Kenwood mixer when I was growing up—my mother didn’t trust new-fangled kitchen technology. Being modern unnerved rather than excited her. But even she had a hand-held electric whisk, gifted as a wedding-present. She was enormously proud of having her own small piece of the kitchen revolution. Just as I am of mine today.