The Kindest Cut

By Kristi Willis
Photography by Jenna Noel

I’m staring at a package containing my birthday present, puzzling over the cryptic note from my stepmother. “One of these is your gift; the other is just yours. You’ll know the difference.” I rip open the box like an impatient six-year-old and find a Laguna Gloria cookbook published the year I started school at the University of Texas. I’m overjoyed with this thoughtful gift that Barbara must have spent days looking for, but I’m curious about the other item so I keep digging…and then I freeze. 

At the bottom of the box, wrapped in a towel, is my dad’s butcher’s knife and sharpening steel. I haven’t seen either in the 13 years since he passed away, and a flood of emotion washes over me. 

My dad owned the kitchen on the weekends. He had a standard menu with little variation, but he made each dish perfectly, so no one cared. Saturday night was steak night: perfectly seasoned medium-rare rib eye, baked potato and salad. Sunday morning breakfast was eggs over easy, hash browns, bacon and crispy toast. And, on Sunday night, we had barbecued chicken, corn on the cob and a vegetable. The meals were simple and perfect.

As he cooked these dishes, he always had one tool at the ready: a steel butcher’s knife. Not a gleaming, stainless-steel blade that you might see in a Williams-Sonoma or Sur La Table catalog. No, this knife was as practical as my father. He wanted quality materials that would last through the decades crafted by some nameless artisan. 

And it has. The handle is weathered with a rivet missing, and the blade is discolored from years of carving roasts, chopping onions and butchering chickens. This knife is not stylish—some might even say it is ugly—but the blade is as sharp as a sword and the weight balances perfectly in your hand. 

Every weekend, I watched my father take out his sharpening steel and hone the blade for the work ahead. He stood in the middle of our open kitchen following whatever football game or John Wayne movie was on TV in the other room and patiently sharpened the knife. He’d wipe the blade clean, put away the sharpening steel and get to work on the family’s meal. When the cooking was finished, he’d carefully clean the knife and put it away. 

My dad had the knife as long as I can remember and when I think about him in the kitchen, he has the knife close at hand. No one else ever used the knife, and no one but him cleaned it—ever. It was my dad’s knife.

When my father passed away, I forgot about the knife. I assumed it was with my stepmother, packed away in the kitchen, but I never saw it. Now, the knife was in my hands. This simple thing that my dad cherished was mine. 

As I balanced the knife in my hands that day, I felt like I was holding hands with my dad again. He has always been with me in the kitchen—first teaching me to cook and then patiently letting me experiment with fancy recipes I’d found. Now, he guides my hand as I chop, dice and slice. He coaxes me to focus and take my time; he reminds me that the joy of being in the kitchen is in the sharing.

I now care for that well-loved knife with the same attention my father gave it. It will hang in my kitchen until I am no longer able to cook, and then it will pass to my niece or nephew, who can use it to share the love of food with their family.