It happened so fast. I was frantically chopping and measuring last fall, testing a recipe for tamales for The Post’s Food section, when I set my knife — my new, ultra-sharp chef’s knife — on the edge of a cutting board, which itself was perched at the edge of my kitchen counter. When I reached for some ingredient or another, I knocked the knife by the handle, and it began to spin, and then to fall — off the board and off the counter.
I didn’t try to catch it, I swear. I know the old kitchen-safety saying: “A falling knife has no handle.” But I couldn’t move out of the way fast enough. And before I knew it, I was clutching my right pinkie finger, pressing on a throbbing wound and holding my hand above my head to try to get the bleeding to stop. It wouldn’t. The wound was deep, the pain was intense and the situation was clear. I needed to get to the ER, fast.
The kitchen is considered the most dangerous room in the house for good reason, and not just because of those knives. Ask any passionate cook to roll up her sleeves, and you’re likely to see burn scars on arms that touched 400-degree oven racks, palms that grabbed sizzling pots without the protection of mitts, or fingers that were splattered by hot oil.
While burns can be painful, it’s the cuts that most often lead to the ER. Knife accidents at home led to hospital visits almost 330,000 times in 2011, according to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, a survey maintained by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In a sample of more than 8,000 of these cases, more than two-thirds of the injuries were to fingers.
As my own experience proves, hurting yourself in the kitchen isn’t just for newbies.
The pros do it, too; most any restaurant chef has a bloody tale or two to tell. Knife wounds are a running thread through most seasons of the Bravo show “Top Chef,” where the message is: Keep cooking, no matter what. When local favorite Carla Hall (now a star on ABC’s “The Chew”) momentarily took an eye off the task at hand — chopping vegetables — in the “All-Stars” season in 2010, she sliced into a fingertip but soldiered on after a medic bandaged it and she donned a plastic glove to protect the food from her blood. “I just want to finish my prep,” she told the medic. “Does it hurt? Yes. Am I about to pass out? No.”
I’m no Jacques Pepin, but my knife skills are definitely above average. I know how to curl back the fingers on one hand while I use it to guide an onion I’m chopping with a knife held in the other. I can tell you the difference between julienne and chiffonade, and can accomplish them both. But I’ve been inflicting mostly minor cuts on myself with semi-regularity ever since my knife-skills instructor told my class on that first day of cooking school that leaving your fingertips exposed to the path of a knife “is the quickest way to turn a white onion into a red onion.”
At first, it was sheer carelessness. That very same day of class, in fact, I had just finished carefully cubing beets for borscht when I lifted the (new, sharp) knife, noticed a little beet cube stuck to the blade and decided I could just quickly swipe it off with my index finger. First day, first cut: no stitches, but a 30-minute break to stop the bleeding, work on a bandage and cover the whole thing in a little finger condom to protect the food and soothe my ego, which had suffered the most damage of all.
Even today, every now and then the knife doesn’t go where I want it to. Before the pinkie incident, the last cut of significance happened as friends and I were rushing to finish cooking for a party and I was using someone else’s knife to chop a mountain of parsley. Rather than divide it into manageable piles, I went at it in one fell swoop — and that swoop gave me a particularly aggressive manicure, one that required a long timeout and a succession of bandages before it healed.
Why do people cut themselves in the kitchen? Sometimes it’s as simple as ignorance: You just don’t know the best way to cut some unstable — often round — ingredient. (The NEISS survey most often mentions onions, avocados and oranges, all items that can roll out from under a knife.) It might be because the knife is dull, meaning you have to work harder to get it to do its job, making it more likely that you’ll slip as it catches rather than slices. Or perhaps it’s because the knife is new: sharp, yes, but also dangerously unfamiliar.
In my case, that knife started spinning because its newfangled handle didn’t allow it to lie flat, something I didn’t know until it was too late.
Often, the cuts happen because you’re using the knife for an unintended purpose. The NEISS survey is rife with such wince-inducing mentions: using knives to open packages, cans of icing, sticks of lip balm, boxes, wine bottles, bags of chicken, or to pry apart frozen hamburgers, hamburger buns or sausages, before the knife slips and the skin bleeds.
Kathleen Flinn, author of “The Kitchen Counter Cooking School,” said that when she teaches knife skills, she gets an earful of such stories. “One woman used her chef’s knife handle as a hammer, when she dropped it and tried to catch it as it fell,” she said. “My favorite was a TV host in Tampa who somehow cut herself on the wrist while making brownies. Apparently, the cut occurred while she used a boning knife from her block to pry them from the pan.”
At Georgetown University Hospital, Sanjay Shewakramani estimates that the emergency department where he is attending physician treated one kitchen-related injury a week, out of about 100 patients, during the holiday season. Most of the time, he said, the culprit was an onion, or perhaps an avocado. “These are things that can be kind of tough to cut, or people do silly things like try to take the seeds out of an avocado in a funny way,” he said.
He sees it on his days off, even. Once, he was cooking with a good friend when she decided to slice up an onion without using a board, just holding it in one hand and cutting with the other. “I think she thought to herself, ‘This probably isn’t smart what I’m doing, but just one more cut,’ ” he said. She cut almost down to the bone on one of her index fingers, and while he rushed to help her, Shewakramani didn’t try to stitch it up right there; he took her to the ER.
You’d think a recreational cooking school such as CulinAerie in downtown Washington would be the site of many a cut or burn because so many students of all experience levels come in to learn techniques and recipes. Not so, says co-owner Susan Holt. In the school’s four years of classes, there have been only a couple of dozen minor cuts and nothing serious, and she thinks it’s because the students are in a foreign environment, paying attention, and very careful.
And therein lies a lesson.
“I cut myself much more often at home than at work,” Holt said. “When people cut and burn themselves, it’s when the kids are running around and the dog is barking. You cut yourself when you’re distracted.”
I learned that the hard way, after my visit to the George Washington University ER resulted in four stitches to my pinkie. I spent more than a week conducting my two most frequent tasks — typing and cooking — with one hand, and not my dominant one. Besides gaining newfound respect for people with missing or disabled limbs, I may have finally internalized one of the most important aspects of knife skills: focus. I treat that knife, and all others, much more carefully. And I haven’t cut myself since.
Yonan is The Post’s Food and Travel editor.