Do It Your Style

A Thanksgiving DIY Tale

I grew up with a passion for baking thanks to my grandmother, a woman who made domesticity look glamorous long before Martha Stewart became famous for it. We made cakes, loaves, muffins and of course, Thanksgiving pies -- all with an old-fashioned hand mixer. Not a battery-operated KitchenAid mixer. I'm talking about the type that operates on elbow grease and a handheld crank (in a lovely, retro shade of robin's egg blue, no less. Even her kitchen appliances were stylish).

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My grandmother passed away a few months before Thanksgiving 2007, rather suddenly, at the age of 81. The task of sorting through her stuff a few weeks later was a bittersweet experience: Part of me felt I was invading her privacy, and the other part indulged in the nostalgia these items stirred up inside me. Her collection of scarves -- Pucci, Yves St. Laurent, Chanel -- all smelled like her perfume (they still do). Her mid-century modern, periwinkle blue espresso cups were still in (almost) pristine condition. They're displayed on my kitchen shelf now.

And, of course, there was the hand mixer I remembered so fondly. The one we used so many times to make so many desserts, all of which were delicious and made from scratch (Italian grandmas are the best cooks, I tell you). The mixer was tattered but proud; operating smoothly, despite its chipped hand crank and its missing plastic handle. I took the relic and stored it in my utensil drawer, making a mental note to repair when I got a chance.

Fast forward three years. With Thanksgiving approaching, I came across the old mixer again, with its telltale signs of having beat a few too many batters. Could I really fix this outdated hunk of metal? I don't even know the manufacturer. And even if I did, I highly doubt they sell replacement handles at this point. When I tried to use it, I'd just grab onto the metal bar, where that robin's egg blue plastic handle once was. The sharp, bare metal bar. "No, that won't hurt my hand. Not a bit. I'm tough." Famous last words, as my grandmother would say. After just three cranks, the metal handle dug into my hand and I knew I'd never be able to use this mixer again. Not in its current state anyway.

So I had this crazy idea: I'd make a handle for it. Out of what, though? I wasn't sure. I'd have to MacGyver it. I'd need materials that were waterproof and had a comfortable hand feel. Piece of cake.

My first idea was to use modeling clay, then paint it once it hardened. But I'd have to bake the clay, and I certainly didn't want to risk putting the entire hand mixer in the oven. Nothing good could come out of that. Then I thought silicone might work. Plenty of kitchen utensils are made of this waterproof, heat-resistant material. Problem was, I didn't really know where to get silicone. Then it hit me: foam rubber! Covered in...something waterproof.

My first stop was Canal Rubber in NYC, a garage-like shop filled with every type of rubber you could imagine. I knew they'd have something that could serve as a cushion for my new handle. I explained my odd project to the store employee: "I have this old hand mixer. It was my grandmother's. We used to bake with it together. I want to fix the handle so I can use it again . Do you recommend any specific type of foam rubber?" He met my request with a blank stare, then ambled over to pile of neoprene sponge rubber mats and handed me one.

"Do you suggest I wrap this around the metal handle?" I asked. He replied, "I suggest you go out and buy a food processor."

That's when I realized it must seem slightly crazy to other people that I was, essentially, trying to make the Frankenstein monster of kitchen tools, when there was a home improvement center just down the block. One that sold many types of inexpensive, 21st century power mixers. I couldn't expect the rubber store employee to understand that a dilapidated, manually operated hand mixer circa 1970 was one of my most prized family heirlooms, could I? Of course not. But also, I didn't care. I'm a DIYer, meaning I have the creativity and talent to give a sentimental object new life. That's the beauty of DIYing, isn't it? Repair, reuse, reinvent. I pressed on.

Next was Canal Plastics, a store that, as advertised, had products for all of my plastic needs. I finally decided on a thin sheet of plastic that was glossy white on one side and shiny silver on the other. Armed with Gorilla Glue and my imagination, I got to work.

First I tried wrapping the foam rubber around the handles, but the handle became too bulky to hold comfortably. Next idea: I wrapped two pieces of foam individually with plastic to create two separate cushions, then glued one cushion to either side of the metal handle. A few attempts and several stuck fingers later (Gorilla Glue is really sticky), I had a fully functioning hand mixer with a comfy cushioned handle, all shiny silver to match the stainless steel body.

Now, after all these years, I can start baking again with the hand mixer my grandmother used all those years ago when she was teaching me to bake. And I'm thankful indeed! Will I still use an electric mixer? Probably sometimes. Not always, though. My grandmother never had one, and I guess she never knew what she was missing. Come to think of it, she also had nice arms.

So this Thanksgiving, I know for sure I'll be making a pumpkin pie, and I know what I'll be using to make it. Of course, I don't expect my pumpkin pie to be as good as my grandma's. Maybe one day I'll figure that part out.

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