The smiling man holding the coffee maker doesn’t seem to notice the looks his Brookline colleagues are giving him. A half-hour into the first big snow day of the winter, the 180 employees of America’s Test Kitchen — the producer of the eponymous PBS cooking show and publisher of the magazine Cook’s Illustrated, which offers reviews of kitchen gear alongside recipes — are beginning to gather in shifts to partake in an annual employee tradition: the giveaway of nearly $60,000 worth of cooking equipment. The proud new owner of a bottom-rated $70 Mr. Coffee machine had to pass over a shelf of the magazine’s top-rated $300 Technivorm Moccamasters to grab it.
Assistant editor Kate Shannon tries to hide a slight grimace. Alongside executive tasting and testing editor Lisa McManus, Shannon spends the year managing the review process. They have spent the past week purging the test kitchen, raiding their nearby storehouse, selecting items to donate to local nonprofits Haley House and ABCD, and transforming the company’s library into a makeshift Filene’s Basement as reimagined by Julia Child. It is their job to have strong opinions on all of the hundreds of gadgets to be given away. “Everyone has access to the reviews,” Shannon says. “I’ve learned to separate myself from the bad choices I see on this day.”
There are a lot of bad choices to be made. To ensure the long-term integrity of its reviews, the company archives for three years at least two of each item it purchases. Most of the winners go into use in the test kitchen, where the testing team continues to monitor them for durability. Runners-up and losers go into storage for eventual release to employees. Many former top picks also make it into the giveaway; whenever a past pick is surpassed or discontinued, all units are replaced with the new pick, thus explaining the dozens of KitchenAid mixers available this year, having been bested by newer models of the same.
Mixed in with former winners are a silicone microwave waffle maker (“Horrible, but it’ll go,” said McManus. It did), “useless” food-saver devices shaped like the produce they’re meant to save, a basketful of olive oil bottle pourers (“none of them work”), hamburger presses (“Do they work? No! This is called the ‘burger stomper.’ Why! That’s exactly what you don’t want. If someone takes that, they didn’t read our report”), a beautiful linen apron that failed to actually protect clothing under it, and several devices meant to cook potatoes in anything other than an oven. (“Potatoes are like rice,” says Shannon. “They should be pretty easy, but people keep running into problems, so there are a million funny gadgets to try to solve it. They sort of work, but it’s not as easy as just putting a potato in the oven.”) Eventually it is all claimed.
Members of the first group to pick earned early entrance by winning raffles held for volunteers at tasting sessions; everyone else goes at randomly assigned times. All find the first items on their wish lists in just two minutes, leading one to wonder if they were among the employees McManus and Shannon had to shoo out earlier in the week when they seemed to linger too long “looking for a book.” Copy editor Krista Magnuson, who scored a bowl-lift stand mixer, isn’t sure which tasting earned her a place in the first group, but she does know the worst one she ever participated in: helping to determine if rubber bands left on lobster claws flavor the water (they do). As one of e-mail marketing specialist Kristina DeMichele’s attempts to get first crack at the giveaway, she ate plain, unsalted pasta. She hasn’t even finished yelling “We can go! Oh my God!” when she wraps her arms around a $150 top-rated trash can. “I had my eye on it. I have a studio apartment. I need it.” Shannon commends the choice, lamenting she would have liked it for herself.
There is a constantly renewing line of excited employees in the reception area. “People expect me to be working today. I’m like, who are they kidding, I can’t do work,” says one.
Back in the library, a $400 La Colombe coffee-making apparatus called The Dragon — lust object of coffee bloggers everywhere — makes an appearance. It looks an awful lot like a bong, McManus acknowledges with laughter, opening its case for a would-be taker. It’s usually not a piece of equipment they would test, McManus explains; former publisher and founder Chris Kimball purchased it himself. “He used it once and said it didn’t make very good coffee.”
Some employees come bearing long lists from spouses, friends, or colleagues for whom they serve as proxy. Most come with reviews pulled up on their phones. The phones will later come in handy when weather knocks out the power at noon, the rest of the giveaway to be completed by the glow of flashlight apps.
But before the lights go out, about 15 minutes after Mr. Coffee finds a new home, it will be photojournalist Kevin White’s turn to wait in line. He will excitedly dive for the last Moccamaster. Told a colleague took the
Mr. Coffee instead, White will simply state: “Oh. Well, I read the reviews.”