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Years ago I used to wander into an eclectic shop called the Culinary Bazaar, on Ponce de Leon Boulevard in Coral Gables. Located next to Caffe Baci, it was the ideal place to wile away a wait for your table (and there was always a wait at Baci). Culinary Bazaar proprietor Rolf Gerstner, who also owns the popular seafood place Bayside Hut on Virginia Key, was usually opening a bottle of wine, and he loved to pour for customers to taste.
Even more than the gratis vino and the free education that went with it, I enjoyed the Culinary Bazaar for its stock, a conglomeration of what can only be termed culinary antiques. Antediluvian kitchen appliances, copper molds, saltcellars, fish knives, baguette baskets, corkscrews -- you could find an entire 18th-century French farmhouse in there if you looked long enough. I purchased a set of butter molds carved from pine, which are still shoved in the drawer where I keep my coupons. (OK, so they were of American workmanship and fairly modern.)
As I was separating out the expired coupons, it occurred to me that those butter molds were my first and last purchase in what was supposed to become a collection. I quit frequenting the Culinary Bazaar when Caffe Baci changed hands (and went downhill). The Bazaar also went through a transformation, moving from its Ponce location to Giralda Avenue a few blocks away and renaming itself the Courtyard. Now Gerstner, who owns what has become a wine shop and gourmet market, uses his collectibles and antiques as décor. He has stored the bigger, more important (read: expensive) pieces in a warehouse. "I'm looking for a new site," he says. "Then the Culinary Bazaar will become reactivated."
Well, great, but until then, where should wannabe culinary collectors nose around? And while we're at it, what, if anything, is worth collecting?
To get some tips, I took my novice self to the antiques shows that run periodically during the winter in the local convention centers. Basically, culinary antiques is a broad topic that includes "everything from teacups to Tupperware," as the ad for Betsy's Odds AnTiques puts it. But the same rules that apply to learning about and buying wine hold true for collecting antiques. First decide what you like. Then buy what appeals to you, remembering your price range. As you become more experienced, you'll be able to spot both inflated prices and good bargains, and increase your collection one piece at a time.
The rarer pieces are those that once seemed clever and now seem useless. Brian Kuszmar of A1A Rare Coin & Estate Buyers advises studying the culinary tools of the wealthy. "Rich people eat with the strangest stuff," he says. Take for example the lamb-chop holder, a tiny vise fashioned to hold the bone of a lamb chop to the plate while the diner slices the meat from the other end. Or the once-indispensable bone-marrow scoop: Now, say the folks at R&P Kassai, wholesalers of antique sterling silver, people "use them for cocktail stirrers." Most of our nearby antique stores, I found, don't even carry this particular collectible anymore. "Only silver dealers do," notes Rima Smollen of RSVP Antiques.
What RSVP does carry (and what can be found in plenty at both shops and shows) is sterling flatware and silver services. Because most of these items don't take up a lot of room, they're perfect for peripatetic South Florida collectors, many of whom live in smallish apartments that themselves could be called collectibles.
Dealers Betty and Michael Dimond recommend looking for outmoded items that are slightly easier to find than the marrow scoop, such as tomato servers. Shaped like round spatulas, these almost-obsolete utensils are available but not as common as, say, saltcellars, shot glasses, or tea services. The Dimonds, who enjoy using antiques in their everyday lives, brought up that point when they showed me an etched sterling Victorian traveling set of utensils, complete with matching napkin rings and the original case, lined in purple satin, for $375. I've always adored traveling sets -- I have a portable bar in its own suitcase that I found at a flea market -- so I thought the portable utensils might be the way to go. But then I recalled that I've never used my little bar. Real bars are just way too convenient.
So on goes the search for an interesting but useful collection. (After all, enophiles do drink their vintages on occasion.) But don't give up hope. Because just when you can't look at another pair of filigreed pastry tongs, the baby-food pusher comes along. I had no idea what this tiny hoe-shape tool was all about when I first spotted it at dealer Lillian Brown's place of business; it's like many once-innovative ideas whose time has long passed. The baby-food pusher is, quite literally, a utensil for pushing food onto a baby's spoon or fork. No one makes them anymore, since most people have accepted the fact that babies are going to eat with their fingers. The cost for a baby-food pusher is reasonable -- one can run from $35 to about $235 -- and the heaviest and most decorative silver ones, with or without monograms, date from the 1800s. But would I, or someone in my family, go so far as to utilize one?