When I received a news release in August proclaiming a “new and improved” Ronco Veg-O-Matic, I flashed on the family dinner table in Pittsburgh circa 1970, where the 10-year-old me performed his rendition of the Veg-O-Matic commercial, complete with game-show-model hand gestures.
“Folks, this is the Ronco Veg-O-Matic! It slices, it dices in teeny, tiny slices. It makes mounds of julienne fries in just seconds. Wouldn’t you love to greet your friends at the door with lovely vegetables like these?” I would say, indicating my brother and sister. (The tasteless double-entendre was always good for an extra laugh.)
Anyone from my generation can probably recite the ads, which certainly worked on me. I pestered my mother until she ordered one.
There was no question that the first thing I’d put through the machine would be a tomato; Ron Popeil (or his stand-in) did it so effortlessly, spreading out pristine slices on the countertop like a Las Vegas deck of cards. After I unpacked and set up the device, I took a tomato, lined it up on the blades, placed my hand on the safety handle and pushed it down firmly, smashing the tomato — and my illusions. The fruit exploded, its juice and seeds splattering on every exposed surface of the kitchen, including the ceiling, walls and me. Nothing came through the blades except water, leaving behind a deflated disk of tomato skin and flesh.
And so 40-some years later, I met with skepticism the e-mail referring to the Veg-O-Matic as “a kitchen classic that makes chopping veggies a breeze.” With the new and improved design, wrote the publicist, it takes just one stroke to slice and dice!
After putting the machine through its paces ($19.99; Amazon.com), I have to wonder just what kind of stroke she meant.
The Veg-O-Matic, introduced in the early 1960s, was invented by Samuel Popeil. His son, Ron, who created Ronco Corp. in 1958, catapulted sales of the Veg-O-Matic into the millions through direct-response TV ads. (Ronco has been bought and sold more than once; since 2011 it has been owned by CD3 Holdings Inc.)
The machine’s new design consists of two plastic grips to place on the safety handle and four separate blade attachments housed in round plastic casings: a cube blade for potatoes, a chopping blade for onions, a slicing blade for tomatoes and a wedge blade for apples. Teeth on the grips are supposed to push and extrude food. The entire housing looks like a plastic Arc de Triomphe, though triumph is a dubious outcome.
This time I started with an onion. Pressing down on the handle firmly, as instructed, with the palms of my hands, I could not push the onion through the dicing disk. In fact, I had to bang on the handle with my fist several times, then pull off both the grip and blade and use a bamboo skewer to extract pieces stuck on both of them. A potato did not go through the cubing blade, even after I pounded on it with my fist. As I tried to pull the pieces out of the blade, I cut myself.
I readily admit to user error. As it turns out, I did not have the top grip inserted correctly at first. The very brief directions don’t explain clearly that you have to twist it until it snaps into place.
Once I fixed that, onions still did not go through the chopping blade completely, but they fared better with the cubing disk. With the grip set correctly, potatoes went through the cubing disk easily (with one stroke!), inducing me to julienne with abandon. When a friend dropped by, I actually greeted her at the door with mounds of julienne fries — a childhood dream fulfilled.
I realized that passing horizontal batons through the cubing blade would yield even, 1 / 2-inch cubes (the instructions don’t mention that), so I cubed everything I had on hand. Soft foods, such as zucchini and mushrooms, cube easily, but when you whack down on the handle, chopped pieces go flying everywhere. Factor sweeping into your prep time.
The wedge disk made short work of coring peeled apples and dividing them into eighths. Potatoes and onions also made nice wedges.
Denser vegetables were trouble. Attempting to force a sweet potato through the blades for batons, I had to call my husband in for help. He placed both hands on the sides of the handle and pushed down over and over, as if trying to administer CPR.
Carrots proved to be the machine’s undoing. On the 10th fist blow to coerce them through the blades, one of the blade strips came off; it was barely heftier than heavy-duty aluminum foil.
Good thing I had two machines on hand, so I could continue my dicing frenzy. But it wasn’t long before the springs in the safety handle began to offer resistance and screech like an old screen door every time I pressed down. Once I managed to push the handle down, I then had to pry it back up, sometimes turning the device on its side to force the parts apart. I chalked the effort up to a cardio workout.
Now it was time to face my demons and try to slice a tomato. Taking no chances, I decided to perform the exercise outdoors. One look at the “new and improved” blade made me realize that proper slices were not possible. The revamped design lets you create half-moons at best, but not rounds.
Keeping in mind my childhood experience, I made sure to use a firm tomato. Half of it went partially through the blades and had to be cut free; the other half was smushed on top.
As a challenge, I set out to create dishes using my Veg-O-Matic-prepped foods. Wedges of potatoes, apples and onions fairly begged to be browned, roasted with a pork loin and finished with an apple jus.
My pile of rough-chopped tomatoes (I used a knife) and cubed onions, carrots, celery, potatoes, mushrooms, zucchini and apples made a hearty fall soup when combined with chicken chorizo sausage to balance the sweetness of the apples.
The simple fact is, though, that even if the Veg-O-Matic came with crucial missing accessories (a spouse, a bamboo skewer, a broom, Band-Aids), it would still be superfluous in today’s well-outfitted kitchen, where a food processor, mandoline or good, old-fashioned knife skills will do a superior job. The original model of the Veg-O-Matic appears in the Smithsonian Museum, and I can’t think of a better place for it.
Hagedorn is co-author of “My Irish Table: Recipes From the Homeland and Restaurant Eve” (Ten Speed Press, March 2014). He’ll join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.