Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Cuts Like a Knife

Not long ago, the phone rang. It was a boy named Greg who lives across the street, a college student whose sister sometimes babysits for my children. He told me he has just been hired to sell Cutco knives, and would I please let him come by and do a practice sales call? "Honestly," he said, "you don't need to buy a thing."

Of course I said yes. My husband thought it sounded like a great idea, especially since it involved no expenditure of cash.

Greg arrived at the appointed time, 7 pm on a warm summer Sunday, and set himself up in our dining room. He had brought some sample knives, a piece of rope, a morsel of leather, and laid them all out on our table. He told me to bring in two of my best knives.

I sat across from him and tried to exude encouragement. He had me cut through the leather with my knife, a Wustof, which is pretty good and cut fairly well. But the Cutco knife, ergonomically designed, pleasing to hold---it cut through that leather like it was butter. And with the Cutco in my hand, it was like the rope was applesauce.

I began to covet the knives. They are expensive (nearly $1000 for a full set!), sure, but just last Thanksgiving my Uncle George pointed out that I didn't have a proper carving knife. Maybe I would just put in a little order for the carving knife and fork, which would set me back something like $140.

When Greg said "I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't ask you to buy something," I declined to buy the full set, or even the half set, but conceded to take the carving knife and fork. While he wrote up the order, I went upstairs for my checkbook.

I was intercepted by my nearly apoplectic husband. He did not want me to spend the money. I acquiesced, mainly so he would not bust a blood vessel. Something didn't feel right, though. I am not a spendthrift. I should be allowed to make my own less-than-frugal decisions, especially if they help neighbor children and provide me with gorgeous carving knives.

So a few days later, as I sat poolside with my mother, I asked her if she had ever heard of Cutco. I think Greg said the company was started in 1949.

"Yes," she said. "Aunt Jean had a Cutco party right when I was first married [1959] and I bought a whole set for Grandma." I was shocked. "They were $1000!" I said. And also, I remember my Grandmother cooking the huge meals she routinely served with nothing more than a rusty butter knife and a bent teaspoon.

"They cost a lot," she agreed. "But Grandma never used them. She called them 'Mary's knives,' and they hung on a wall."

My grandmother, the daughter of immigrants who worked as domestic help on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, never opened expensive gifts. Her refusal of finery was like a repudiation of the excess of her parents' employers. We once went to the Frick Museum, a former home of a fabulously wealthy family, and Grandma couldn't enjoy it at all. She hated to be reminded of people who had so much, while others had nothing. When she died in September 2009 at 94, her children found numerous unused silk slips and nighties dating back to the Second World War.

"Why wouldn't she use the Cutco knives?" I asked, though I thought I knew the answer. I was also thinking, how can I get my hands on those knives?

"She was superstitious," said Mom. " She thought that if you gave knives as a gift, you cut the relationship."

One of the many things that I didn't know about my grandmother, Mary Vorel Burr. RIP.


  1. She was right, but tape a penny to the blade. Then it's okay. Won't cut the relationship. ;)

  2. Or just send the pennies with the thank you note. Common Irish wisdom, like leaving through the door you entered and not using condoms because Jesus hates it.

  3. My mom believed that as well. We could never give knives or handkerchiefs as gifts (handkerchiefs apparently bring sorrow to the relationship). That said, we could "buy" them from the person. I remember my mom asking me for a coin, and then handing me a really good utility knife she bought me when I got my own apartment. I still have the knife, 30 years later, and it's still great!

  4. Wow, I've never heard of this tale about knives and handkerchiefs. I gave my husband a set of knives for Christmas! Oh dear.

  5. I spent 2 1/2 whole days in the land of Cutco, and while it was very weird (I was told I could likely succeed enough to get into the 'inner circle'), I don't regret it at ALL. I learned that I'm not cut out to be a natural salesperson, and I covered my costs by selling off the 'sample set' of knives I'd bought. I kept one for myself - 14 years later and I still LOVE that knife.

    I also love the idea of being able to 'break' the bad luck of the knife gift with a penny - such a cool idea!

  6. My husband's cousin sold those knives a long while back, and everyone who bought them loves them to this day. They never dull.

  7. uh-oh, my mom just bought me a set of Cutco knives as my "welcome to the grown up world" gift...

  8. I used to sell those knives too, funny that the sales are always the same. To this day, I still love the set that I bought as samples. Did you ever get Mary's knives?

  9. My mom received Cutco knives for a wedding present 45 years ago. Recently one broke and she wrote to the company and they sent her a replacement...for free. They are guaranteed for life. Expensive, yes but awesome knives and amazing company.

  10. Wonderful story.

    And RIP, Mary Vorel Burr.

  11. One of my co-workers sold those knives. We're teachers in a poor district and many have second jobs. We bought the starter set 15 years ago and they are still great. They are worth it.

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  13. Obviously, Christina, you are working for Cutco in some capacity. Any reader who doesn't have one now wants one. Your sales approach is modern and novel, but transparent. Good work.

    Also am I the only person (aside from Dalton) who is pissed that dude called it a practice run but then pitched you on the knives? I'm all for allowing hot college guys into my house on warm Sunday eves, but it's a lame move on his part to say one thing then do another. He's fired.

  14. Actually, it probably was a practice run, and as it being a practice, he should practice the whole thing, right? This would obviously include the pitch. Plus, if she was interested in the knives, why should he refuse to sell to her? It just doesn't make sense. It also exudes ignorance on your part for assuming he would refuse a sale.