I sat plopped on Carol’s overstuffed sofa, surrounded by gigantic pillows. My hands cupped a thick earthenware mug filled with hot coffee and two creams. Across the living room sat my sister, Carol, perched on her favorite spot, a reddish-brown and somewhat glossy leather recliner. We were chatting and once again focused on the memories from our distant past.
Carol is my oldest sister and a full 15 years my senior, yet we had the most similar childhood experiences. These were contrasted by my sister Nancy, my dad’s favorite, and my brother Dave who my mom pampered.
Our conversation turned to my brother, Tommy, 13 years older than me. Tom was the quiet one in our family. He was over six feet tall and with a husky build; he was dark in complexion, with jet black hair and a masculine persona. I don’t have a single negative memory of Tom. Well, that would be a lie as I have many negative memories. However, they have little to do with Tom, the person; they center on other things.
I woke up in shock. My heart was racing, and I was sweating profusely. I felt nauseous. It was 2:30 in the morning, and the harvest gold wall phone in the kitchen was ringing incessantly. Instinctively, I jumped out of bed and felt a dizzy head rush that almost made me collapse to the floor. I lurched forward, making it to the small hallway between my room and the kitchen beyond. I froze, unable to move as if a giant forcefield was pressing on my shoulders. I couldn’t take a step further. I couldn’t be the person to accept the call. It was not meant for me.
My mother, Anne, rushed past me wearing an old and somewhat tattered nightgown. I could feel the heat from her body as she brushed me. Within seconds I heard her wail, “Oh no, oh God no, please God no!” I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. As usual, I had to be the strong one, the one in control. The dreaded phone call had finally come. My father, Ed, stumbled in. He was silent as he slid past me and into the kitchen. He also knew without asking. We all knew before the phone ever rang.
My brother Tommy was my oldest brother. Darkly handsome, with a dry sense of humor and an ability to write funny stories. I don’t have a lot of memories of interacting with my brother. Being 13 years my senior, he was fully adult by the time I was eight. I have a reminiscence here and there, but they consist of family interactions or situations where my role was one of an observer rather than a participant.
I recall riding with my parents as we dropped Tommy off at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana. The small school was dominated by a large brick church that had a Byzantine character. I remember his red brick dormitory building and also a large pond, or was it a gigantic fountain? I have a vague recollection of eating lunch in the school’s dining hall. My father was always up for eating in school cafeterias. I’m unsure if this was because he worked as a chief operating engineer for CPS or the fact that he was never able to go away to college.
It was likely that my brother was only 18 at the time. However, in my child’s mind, he was a grown-up facing an exciting college future. Tommy was engaged to a woman named Donna, who was my sister’s co-worker. As I write this, it seems odd that someone would be engaged at 18, and this reality makes me question my historical accuracy. Perhaps he became engaged after attending St. Joe’s for a few years; I don’t know.
Donna was unhappy with Tom’s absence and made her feelings clear, forcing him to trek the 81 miles back to Chicago every weekend. The price of love was his education, and he eventually dropped out of school. This was an important lesson for me because my brother had to work in various unfulfilling office jobs. Selfish people are selfish, and soon his adoring presence was inadequate for Donna, and the relationship ended.
I mentioned my father’s intrigue with higher education, but I would also like to add that many Eastern European immigrants believe that education is THE ticket to a successful life. Embedded in my mind is my mother’s comment, “You can lose a million dollars, but no one can ever take away your education.” This lesson was also emphasized to Tommy, and it was clear to him that he needed to return to school. However, his adoration of Donna left his transcripts in shambles, and despite his innate intelligence, no school would consider him. That was until he read about Parson’s College, an institution known to give people a second chance.
He was accepted at Parson’s, where he did well academically, and graduated with a degree in business administration. At some point, he met and married his wife, Lee. At some other point, he spent several years serving in the Army. The exact sequence of all of these events eludes me.
Tommy’s life was moving forward, but I was still a kid living in our run-down bungalow on Francisco Avenue. The one that my mother didn’t want but that my father insisted on buying because it had been owned by some distant connection from his past.
Now, I was a kid in high school, and Tom was a married man. We had little in common and shared few adventures. I longed to have relationships with both of my brothers. I watched movies where older brothers protected their younger siblings. Brothers who would teach their younger brothers how to navigate the world. This was not meant for me as they were too old to connect with adolescents, yet too young to develop the empathy necessary that would make them reach out to me despite our age differences. However, college was coming, and with it, I was hopeful for the equalization that such transitions bring.
I made one of my very rare trips back home from Northern Illinois University. I was now a senior and had already taken the GRE. I was filling out applications to graduate schools as part of my plan to get a Ph.D. in microbial biochemistry, my next step in my goal to become a university professor.
It was a time of reflection that was somewhat bittersweet. My memories flashed to my 8th grade and the private meeting on our front porch that my father summoned me to. “I have decided that you will go to Gage Park, high school.” I sat shocked in silence. Gage Park had deteriorated into a poor academic institution best known for its gang activity and physical violence. My father read the look of disbelief on my face and flatly said, “If you want to learn, you can learn anywhere.” The conversation was over.
All of my siblings had gone to private high schools, so I honestly don’t know why he made such a pronouncement. I guess he was just done with parenting. Worse yet, my uncle, Nick, mentioned in passing to me that my extended relatives assumed that the only reason that I would be denied a private education was that I was too stupid to be accepted to a Catholic high school. Why else would I be sent to such a terrible place? I had to deal with not only my anger but also the shame that my extended family thought I was a moron.
When I graduated from Gage Park, I took control of my life. No one was going to pigeonhole me into what they felt I was or should be. College became the time for me to be me, and I made the most of it. I was the guy setting the curves on the tests, the one that the teachers asked if they could keep his term papers to use as examples. I was the one who was called by professors and told not to take the final exam for fear that I would push the curve too far to the right for the other students. I was a steam roller moving forward.
I was also moving forward with the connections with my older siblings. As I became an adult, our differences morphed into similarities. I was changing from an isolated only child role to an equal member of a five-siblings group. This was a gift, but then I received the most horrible news possible.
I perched myself on the edge of Carol’s couch, afraid that if I sat back, it would swallow me in its plushness. I love both of my sisters and feel immensely close to them and their kind, warm ways. Our connections have grown exponentially over the years. I’m no longer their baby brother; I am their trusted sibling. As usual, my conversation with Carol meandered.
Our respective childhoods, separated by 15 years, were so similar. We were both given buoys that kept us afloat during those times. When Carol was young, my parents lived in a flat below my grandparents. She would go up the stairs nightly to be fussed over by my then-young aunts, Mary, Lill, and Susie. They made her feel special and important. She felt that their influence significantly changed her life.
In turn, I had my friend John. We had known each other since kindergarten but became best friends, then brothers, in 6th grade. We were inseparable and saw each other every day. Our jobs were to support and take care of each other. To be there when times were tough. To high-five each other over successes. A role that we serve to this very day.
“I don’t have any negative memories of Tommy; I just wish that I had had a relationship with him,” I told Carol. “Why did it all have to end that way?”
My mind flashed back to my senior year at NIU. I have mentally blocked how I got the news, but I intensely remember how I felt after receiving it… shocked, scared, and in a panic. My brother had developed a cold, and he couldn’t shake it. He had been ill for months and was tired and run down. Finally, he went to the doctor, and his diagnosis was terrifying; he had CML or Chronic Myeloid Leukemia. The good news was that this was one of the few cancers in the 1970s that had a fairly reasonable cure rate. New treatments were emerging, and he was going to be cared for at the University of Chicago Hospital, one of the best places in the nation.
Remission, then failed remission, then no remission. Endless bone marrow punctures, toxic chemotherapies, white blood cells centrifuged from our veins and stuck into his. My big, strong, bulky brother was transformed into a wisp of smoke. I recall helping him into a car, so we could drive him back to the U of C for another round of torture. We had secured his belt as tightly as we could, yet when he stood next to the car, his pants fell between his ankles. He was a walking skeleton.
My mind traveled to a regret that still haunts me today. Tom had developed an ileus while in the hospital and was on strict NPO (nothing by mouth). He was so dry that his lips were white and cracked. “Mike, please go to the fridge and sneak me a popsicle. I’m so dry… please!” This was before I ever considered medical school, and in my lack of knowledge, I felt that I could kill him if I disobeyed the doctor’s orders. I am distressed to this day that I didn’t get him that popsicle.
Now I was in graduate school, learning about bacteria when I should have been learning about cancer. The knowledge that seemed so important to me became trivial. Why didn’t I know how to fix this problem?
And then the early-morning phone call came. After a year of suffering, my brother was dead. He was 32.
A thought flashed across Carol’s eyes. “I just remembered that I came across something that you may find useful,” she said as she started to rifle through her files. She handed me four yellowed handwritten sheets of paper.
The top of the sheets bore the letterhead of David J White and Associates, a company unknown to me. Below the letterhead were the words “Dear Michael Klina.” followed by a neat and almost feminine script scribed in black ink. I continued to read in puzzlement until a dim light bulb started to glow in my head. It was a letter written to me by my brother Tom while he was at work. The note was undated but sent to me at Christmastime when I was at NIU. I attended NIU during my junior and senior years, so it was sent in December sometime during that time. It is likely that he wrote the letter during my senior year, a few months before he was diagnosed with leukemia.
The letter isn’t significant in content, which makes it all the more significant to me. It is a newsy letter, charming in its lack of any real news and full of inside jokes. There are several misspells of our last name, Kuna, four letters that were consistently mangled when our household received legal documents, adverts, magazines, and business letters. There is talk of Christmas shopping and his lack of funds because of it. There is a protective warning to me that gas stations would be closed over Christmas. There are inquiries about the mechanical reliability of my 1972 Ford Pinto, probably the worst car design of all time. Apparently, the chair of the Department of Chemistry had been reaching out to me about some sort of honors thing that Tom knew about, but I have no current memory. Tommy also made reference to my long-time friend, John, who was then my college roommate.
He ended the letter in a jokingly formal “Thomas” and added his wife’s name for completeness. He mis-signed his last name four different ways, bringing his initial joke full circle, and finally concluded with a “Kilroy was here” doodle, a usual ending for an informal correspondence that he would send to anyone.
The significance of the letter was in its insignificance. It was a note to a friend, an equal. The trauma of the last year of my brother’s life had completely made me forget the fact that we were finally connecting in a brotherly way. Yes, I wanted much more, but this was something. A random letter sent to me had somehow found its way into my sister’s files. Now, almost 50 years later, it was sent back to me to remind me that my brother Tommy did care about me. It was as if he found a way to tell me that he was looking out for me all of these years.
As I write this, I wonder if my departed brother had anything to do with the uncontrollable forces that made me leave grad school after my Master’s degree and apply to med school. A decision that seemed so foolish, bizarre, and out of context for rational me. Why would I feel compelled to do such a thing? Perhaps, the force that was guiding me was my heavenly brother, Tommy. Perhaps, he placed those four sheets of paper in my sister’s file so they could give me comfort decades later…Perhaps.
My dear brother, I wish we could have grown old together.
I admit that I watch too many YouTube videos. I’ll start with one, then another, then another. It is clear that YouTube has a secret sauce that keeps me engaged. They can skillfully shift my interests by offering videos with enticing titles, and some of these can pull me into a dark place.
My regular diet of YouTube is pretty pedestrian. I like van-dwelling videos, especially ones that explore how people normally live out of cars or vans. Topics like van cooking, stealth camping, and van hygiene fascinate me. I also enjoy videos where I learn something new, perhaps a bit of history or a video that explains how something works. Finally, like many, I’m a sucker for heartwarming animal stories, and I can get sucked into watching one with an exciting title or cute thumbnail.
This isn’t unusual, so why is it that YouTube sometimes takes me to the dark place called outrage porn? Videos that are so negative that they outrage and upset me. I don’t think of myself as a negative individual; I mostly have a positive attitude and respect for others. However, once I enter this chilling algorithm, I find that it swallows me, sometimes for days, and I have to fight my way out of it to break free of its negativity.
My most recent descent started by clicking on a video titled, “Uber rider thinks she is a lawyer and gets kicked out.” It involves a group of 5 passengers trying to take a ride booked for 4. Four is the maximum allowed for the particular level of Uber that they ordered, and the driver could be deactivated if he broke Uber rules. Further, his insurance would not cover him if he didn’t follow Uber policy. The customers wanted to debate why he should break the rules (they likely ordered this level of Uber because it is cheaper), citing that he didn’t know what he was talking about. One of the passengers stated that she was right because she was “a lawyer” and that he should drive them. He rightly canceled the ride; at the end of the video, one of the riders is heard saying that he would contact corporate about the driver’s behavior.
After watching this video, I was presented with more outrageous Uber videos, ranging from people trying to scam the driver out of their fare to rudeness at unimaginable levels to verbal and physical driver assaults. Insults were directed at drivers’ ethnicity, job choice, and cars. In addition, several videos showed police verbally abusing Uber drivers for minor infractions, sometimes telling them to “Go back to your own country.”
Soon other videos were coming my way. The new ones highlighted obnoxious airline passengers. Parents letting their out-of-control kids run wild and scream for an entire flight. Fat shamers, angry drunks, and other passengers whose entitlement assumed a master/slave level of rudeness. Entire flights that had to be deplaned so that police could forcibly remove out-of-control passengers. Passengers who blamed the ground crew because the plane didn’t wait for them despite their being late.
Lastly, there was the sad and horrible case of 69-year-old Dr. Dau, who was minding his own business when asked to give up his seat for a crew member. When he refused (he had patients to see the following day), he was assaulted and dragged off the plane by police, whose brutality left him unconscious, bleeding, and missing two teeth.
Now the YouTube algorithm transported me to the world of angry Karens. Super entitled individuals who think that the best way to accomplish their obnoxious demands is by hysterically screaming. They commonly assert their “rights” by dropping F-bombs, racial slurs, and demeaning insults to those, they are targeting.
The horrible woman who marched up to a Dunkin Donuts window, demanding to talk to the manager because her cream was added to her coffee instead of on top of her coffee. The equally dreadful lady who stormed up to a Burger King drive-through window demanding a refund because she was dissatisfied with her food. The Burger King had caught on fire, and all of the employees had retreated outdoors to safety as black smoke billowed from the building. The lady is seen on video screaming insults and f-bombs at the poor employees insisting that they go inside and get her a refund for her hamburger even though the building was in flames. Then there was the Karen who gave a zero tip to her waitperson writing on her bill, “Next time, wish me a Happy Mother’s Day,” and the male Karen who had a toddler-level fit when his pick-up grocery order wasn’t perfect.
And so it went, one video leading to another video. I watched, obsessed like I would be missing something of value if I didn’t click on the next video. As this immersion continued, I felt my stomach getting upset, and I became agitated. I was both angry and afraid at the same time. My reality had become a world of negativity. Everyone was the enemy; everyone was out to get me, and the world seemed unsafe. It was as if I was a drug addict who was no longer getting a high from my drug of choice but still couldn’t stop using. Luckily, Walmart intervened.
Most of you know that I hate shopping for groceries at Walmart, and this has only intensified since they have gone to an almost cashier-free check-out system. There is nothing like having a week’s worth of groceries that you have to check out and bag yourself. Since we buy a lot of vegetables, there are also those inevitable “look-ups” that add to my frustration.
I had sworn off Walmart, but I needed to get things I thought they only had. I had just gotten my second COVID booster, and I was feeling pretty crappy. I asked Will and Grace to go shopping with me as I honestly thought I couldn’t do it alone. We piled into my van and started the 2.6 miles to the supercenter. I mentioned to them my plunge into darkness. William sighed, “Dad, you can’t watch those videos; they are just upsetting.” Gracie chimed in, “Those videos represent a tiny fraction of the population. Most people are nice if you give them a chance. Those people are the exception, not the rule.” Of course, they were right.
We got to Walmart and tried to get through the store as quickly as possible. But, as usual, many shelves were bare, and the two unusual items I needed to purchase, clam juice and fennel seeds, were nowhere to be found.
Despite those minor frustrations, I focused on the positives of the situation. We did get 99% of our groceries, and it was terrific having Will and Grace’s help. I deliberately tried to break my cycle of negativity by smiling at other shoppers and giving them the right of way. At the end of our experience, we approached check-out. Most of the lanes had been converted to self-check-out; however, many of those were not working. Finally, Grace spotted a lone checker working furiously at the far end of the store. We navigated to her and got in line. She was overwhelmed, and I made a deliberate effort to compliment her. As we left the store, I also made sure that I told the employee guarding the exit, “Have a wonderful day.”
All of those YouTube videos highlighted how truly obnoxious and entitled people could be. They also reinforced how I never want to be one of those individuals. I guess that was the positive side of my YouTube binge. However, there was also the negative side of feeling physically sick, agitated, angry, and fearful. Despite all of those negative feelings, I continued to watch one video after another. Each one took me into darker and darker places. I needed a physical break and wise words to break the cycle.
I believe that such manipulations are common tactics to increase engagement. This is also evident on cable news channels, whose editorial commenters can say the most outrageous and biased opinions. They act like newscasters but, in reality, are well-dressed male and female “Karens” who espouse their subjective opinions as truth. As I have said many times, stop watching cable news shows because they will poison you.
It is easy to get sucked up into a cycle of outrage porn, but to what end? Yes, mine led to some empathy and awareness. Could I have achieved those goals without subjecting myself to a day of viewing the worst of humanity? Likely so. Today I am grateful for my kids who needed me to go grocery shopping and their wisdom that helped me center myself on the reality that people are mostly good.
If you are a vandweller, car camper, flight attendant, trucker, or business traveler you probably have had to cook meals on the road. Today, I’ll be reviewing the Sabotheat Smart Oven with an emphasis on vandwelling. However, the information will be useful for any person who needs to prepare meals without the benefit of a formal kitchen.
The classic way to cook in a van is to use a butane or propane stove. These devices are proven, work well, and heat fast. However, they consume fuel that may be expensive or hard to find when you are camping in the wild.
Another way to cook has been to use the van’s house battery system. As these power banks have become more powerful it has become feasible to cook with induction cooktops and microwaves. However, these high draw devices quickly flatten a van’s power system if it is not robust (i.e. expensive) enough.
There have been a number of low wattage 12 and 120-volt devices that have been around for a while, and some new ones, like the micro-small electrics from Dash can do everything from poaching eggs to making mini-bundt cakes.
The Hot Logic Mini and the Road Pro Lunch Box Oven are two gadgets that have stood the test of time; they approached low-wattage electric cooking from two ends of the spectrum.
The Road Pro runs off of a standard 12-volt car outlet and can reach 300 F, which allows for real roasting and baking. It uses about 145 watts/hour making it compatible with most 12-volt car outlets and is a favorite among truckers who can load a meal into it and have it cook their food while they drive from point A to point B. In addition, its low power consumption makes it possible to use it with a relatively small solar generator/solar panel setup. I have cooked raw chicken in a Road Pro in less than 90 minutes (145 watts x 1.5 hours = 217 watts used). Naturally, there are many foods that require less cooking time than that. A heat-resistant cooking vessel is necessary when using these devices, and most find that disposable 8” loaf pans work well.
The Hot Logic Mini approaches heating food a bit differently. It is a small collapsible heater that can be purchased in both a 120 volt and a 12-volt version. It only uses 45 watts per hour, so it is very solar-friendly. Although it is marketed as a “mini-oven” it is more of a collapsable slow cooker that is permanently set on low. It heats to a maximum of 160F, which is a food-safe temperature. It is possible to cook some raw foods in the mini in addition to heating up already prepared dishes. The mini is not only popular among van dwellers, but also flight attendants who may live for days in a hotel without access to a microwave.
Since the Mini only heats to 160 F degrees there is no chance of fire, and you can even heat foods directly in their cardboard or plastic boxes. Like a slow cooker, the Mini is time tolerant. Do you have to leave your food in it for an extra hour or two? No problem.
Recently, I saw YouTube reviews of a new collapsable “mini oven,” the Sabotheat Smart Portable Oven. This should not be confused with the Sabotheat Mini Portable Oven, as that device seems to be a clone of the Hot Logic Mini.
The Smart Portable Oven had a few features that I thought could be useful for both vandwellers and other travelers. Notably, it has a controller that contains both a timer and a six-level power adjustment. At power level one it uses only 30 watts, and at power level 6 it consumes 110 watts. Because of this, I thought that the Sabotheat Smart Portable Oven could serve a dual purpose role. When using it on its lower power setting it could function similarly to a Hot Logic Mini. At its high setting, I thought it might perform similarly to a Road Pro Oven, and allow baking and roasting. However, both of these assumptions are incorrect.
The power level control controls the rate of heating, but not the final temperature. Eventually, the hotplate will heat to around 260F. This will happen very slowly at level 1, and faster at level 6. If you are very careful it could be possible to heat up something in cardboard or plastic on levels 1 or 2. However, if you forget about your food you could have an internal melt-down and fire in the oven. Therefore, Sabotheat advises that you only use metal or heat-resistant glass when cooking. Further, they don’t want you to use tight-fitting lids for the same reason. This is an advantage of the Hot Logic. Since you can use tight-fitting lids in the Hot Logic you will prevent spills while on the road. By the way, the SabotHeat Smart Oven advises against mobile use.
The Sabotheat can reach 260F, but not the 300F that the Road Pro Lunchbox Oven reaches. This is a Road Pro advantage when you want to roast or bake something. I have made quick mixes and cornbread in the Road Pro. The top doesn’t brown, but the results are perfectly edible. I tried to make a Jiffy Mix in the Sabotheat, and it was a disaster. After 3 hours the top of the cake was still gummy, while the bottom was over browned. The cake was inedible.
I also tried to heat liquids at level 6. After 2.5 hours the temperature of the liquid got to 195F. Hot enough to make some instant coffee or to heat up a can of soup, but not hot enough to boil water. The hotplate itself was very hot, likely well over 200F, but the tip of the probe on my instant food thermometer was too narrow to measure its actual temperature.
The bottom line is that the Sabotheat Smart Oven is a useful device, but it is not a replacement for the Hot Logic Mini or the Road Pro. If you have either device there is no reason to upgrade. The Sabotheat Smart Oven can’t achieve the 300F of the Road Pro, so it doesn’t get hot enough to bake. No matter what heat setting it is set to, its hotplate will eventually reach around 270F which makes it too hot to heat up plastic or cardboard containers (like you can in the Hot Logic).
I am aware of flight attendants who like to directly heat up their home-prepared meals in FoodSaver bags, however, these may melt with the direct heat of the Sabotheat. It may be possible to use a lower heat setting combined with careful timing to mimic a Hot Logic Mini, but you would have to do that at your own risk. Why not just use the Mini which has a proven heating ability, and won’t melt your food containers?
The Sabotheat is a decent product that comes in both a 110 and 12-volt version, but I think existing devices are already available and do a better job.
One of the benefits of getting older is having more life experiences. Not only unique adventures but also repetitious ones. Repeated activities can be exciting and educational if you allow yourself to learn from them.
You know that I can cook, and I have been cooking for many decades. My friends know this too, so it is not uncommon for me to participate in meal preparation when I’m invited over for a casual dinner.
I’ll often be given some sort of slicing-and-dicing job, and because of this, I have used many different knives. In my younger years, I chopped with castoffs and Goodwill bargains. In later times I have used knives that bear brand names like Chicago Cutlery, Cutco, Global, Henckels, Shun, and Wusthof. Frankly, most of these knives have been pretty crappy to use—more on that.
My ex got everything when we divorced in the mid-1980s. I moved into a basement apartment in Skokie and furnished my new life with handouts, second-hand store purchases, and things I found in the trash. I had a desire to establish myself as an adult, and for some reason, I thought that I needed adult kitchen gear. Unfortunately, I worked as a resident physician and had little to no cash after paying rent and child support.
During that time, there was an emphasis on having good kitchen knives, and in those pre-internet days, there were several magazine articles on the topic. What should I buy? The articles told me I should buy forged, not stamped knives, resin (which is plastic), not plastic handles, exotic-sounding blade steel instead of steel that sounded less fancy, full tang instead of partial tang, bolsters instead of no bolsters…and so it went. I took every word as the Sunday gospel and followed their collective advice. Please note that I would like you to forget all of this advice as it is not essential; it turns out that it was primarily fake news for home cooks.
In the end, I went with Consumer Report’s recommendation and purchased Gerber Balance Plus knives. Due to my finances, I bought my 4 Gerber knives individually over six months, starting with an 8″ chef’s knife, which cost well over $100. The blades were good, and I used them until I married Julie in 1993. By then, my knives were dull and dangerous. She relegated them to basement storage and bought an inexpensive Farberware Santoku-style knife from Target. The Santoku was pretty dull out of the box, so I taught myself how to reprofile its knife-edge, and with some effort, I ground it to an acceptably sharp angle.
I learned cutting skills using a standard chef’s knife, and because of this, I was never thrilled using a Santoku-style blade. Then, one day I was roaming around Sam’s Club (now vacated from our area), and I came across a chef’s knife that I impulsively bought. That was over 25 years ago, and we still use that knife every day. What is this excellent knife, and what is our secret trick to keep it paper slicing sharp after all of these years? All will be revealed later on in this post.
First, let’s look at some case scenarios. (doctors love case scenarios)
The professional chef
These guys and gals are trained to be expert knife handlers. They know how to extract every ounce of a knife’s potential. They can slice at blinding speeds. They can chop with their eyes closed. Then, they can professionally sharpen their tools to a razor’s edge using a whetstone.
They need knives of the highest performance. Knives that can hold an edge for a day of endless slicing, chopping, deboning, and cutting. Knives are their most essential tools, so money is no object. If they have to pay 50% more for a 5% increase in performance, they are happy to do it. They have the skill and ability to maximally use that slight benefit.
Since they are so knowledgeable, they are the ones who are consulted about consumer knife advice. They are experts, but their cutting needs differ from most home cooks. Unfortunately, the knife attributes that they need go wasted on us.
The commercial cook
Most of us don’t frequent Michelin-rated restaurants, but we do like to eat. We dine at family restaurants and chain establishments. We might frequent school or work cafeterias. Our foods may be prepared by an outside service like Blue Apron or Meals on Wheels. These places employ countless cooks, and one of their main jobs is to cut up things.
Bushels of potatoes, bags of onions, and bunches of carrots all have to be processed daily. These cooks may or may not have formal training, but they are expected to perform professionally.
Chefs purchase their knives, but an employer supplies a cook’s cutlery. Their blades have to be comfortable, non-slippery, and sharp enough to hold an edge for hours of hard work before they can be resharpened. Form follows function, as these knives have to be as inexpensive as possible while still being capable of safely getting the job done. Foodservice knives won’t win any beauty contests, but they do what they are supposed to do.
The home cook
Most home cooks don’t have formal training, yet they have to perform many of the same tasks as their professional counterparts. However, they have time on their side. They don’t need to chop a bushel of onions rapidly; they can take their time chopping half of an onion. Despite this difference, they still need good tools, not for speed but for safety.
Home cooks fall into three general groups:
The “It will do” group.
These folks get by with as little equipment as possible. They cook because they have to and would rather spend their money on other things. They are happy to use castoff knives or inexpensive ones purchased from their local big-box store.
The “Thank you very much” group.
These cooks were given their cookware, including their knives. Often such gifts were wedding presents, and they continue to use these items decades later. Classic knife blocks adorn their countertops, often filled with 10 or 12 cutting instruments, most of which go unused.
The “Look at me” group.
These folks have cash to burn, and they burn it. They buy high-end cooking equipment, including knives. Spending $400 on a single general-purpose knife is not out of the question.
I have sliced and diced in friend’s kitchens from all three of these categories, and I have encountered crappy knives everywhere. Yes, I have the solution to this problem, but first, you need to understand just a little bit more about cutlery.
Some more stuff about knives.
Kitchen knife blades can be made from several different materials. But, go with stainless steel and make your life easier.
The cutting part of a knife is called the edge. In most cases, the knife’s blade is ground down until it becomes a triangular point. Knives are ground at different angles. A knife designed for heavy, rough use may have a broader inclusive angle of 50 degrees (25 degrees per side). In contrast, a knife designed for more delicate work, like cooking, may have an inclusive angle of 40 or even 30 degrees (20 and 15 degrees per side, respectively).
Narrower angled edges are perceived as sharper by the user. However, a thinner angle means that these knives will dull quicker and suffer from more edge roll. Knife manufacturers use more rigid steel for these blades to compensate for this. However, harder steel is more likely to chip, and it is more difficult to sharpen than softer steel. Because of this, knife manufacturers compromise to find the best angle of the edge and the best steel hardness for the knife.
In the past European and American kitchen knife manufacturers used an inclusive edge angle of 40-degrees (20 degrees per side) and moderately hard steel. Japanese manufacturers used an inclusive angle of 30-degrees (15 degrees per side) and a harder, more brittle steel. The Japanese configuration has become popular in the US during the last decade, and European and American knife manufacturers are now making some of their blades using the Asian 30-degree parameter.
Both 40 and 30-inclusive degree knives are capable of effortless cutting if they are maintained. Maintaining a knife includes honing, which smoothes out micro-burrs and bends on the knife’s edge, and sharpening, which involves removing metal to return a dull knife to its former self.
It is best to resharpen a knife at the angle it was designed for. For example, a knife created with a 40-degree inclusive should be resharpened at that angle, and one with a 30-degree inclusive should be resharpened at that angle. It is possible to reprofile a knife’s edge to a different angle, but it is often more practical to stick with the manufacturer’s intended design.
So why did all of the knives that I used suck?
The bottom line is that most people don’t properly care for their knives. It doesn’t matter if you have a $20 knife or a $200 knife; if you don’t properly care for it, it will soon become trash. Remember, a dull knife is much more dangerous than a sharp one.
What are the most important factors to consider when buying a kitchen knife?
I told you to forget all of the exotic handles and fancy-sounding steel information. Let me reinforce this… That stuff may be necessary if you are a professional chef, but it is not important to the home cook. However, there are a few essential things: the knife’s ergonomics and the style of the knife’s blade.
Ergonomically, a knife should feel reasonably balanced in your hand. The handle should feel comfortable, and (most important) it should be secure when wet or greasy. Knives come in different styles, and styles come in different blade lengths. Therefore, it is important to find a knife that works for you.
If you only want one kitchen knife…
The most used and most versatile knife in any kitchen is either a chef’s knife or a Santoku knife. Both form factors do the same thing but originated from different parts of the world (Europe vs. Japan). Both styles are manufactured in different blade lengths, but most prefer an 8″ chef’s knife or a 7″ Santoku knife. Very experienced cooks use longer blade lengths, and smaller ones work better for people with smaller hands. However, if you go too short on blade length (for instance, less than 6″ on a chef’s knife), much of the knife’s versatility is lost, and it becomes more of a utility knife than a jack-of-all-trades device.
Both styles are equally versatile. Some newer cooks find the blunted nose of a Santuko less intimidating, while others like the rocking action of a chef’s knife.
I am most comfortable using an 8″ chef’s knife. I have used one to do just about everything. I have carved 18-pound turkeys, hulled strawberries, and cut crusty French bread. Over time, Julie has also converted to using our 8″ chef’s knife.
If you want to own only one knife, it should be either a chef’s knife or a Santoku knife. These blades can do about 90% of all kitchen cutting tasks.
If you only want two kitchen knives…
Start with a chef’s knife or a Santoku knife, and add a paring knife.
A paring knife is a small knife with a blade length between 3-4.5 inches. Most folks find 3.5-4 inches a good length. The shape of the blade may vary from design to design, but the job remains the same…small tasks. For example, mincing shallots, hulling strawberries, and peeling potatoes are easy to do using a paring knife.
If you only want three different kitchen knives…
Go with the above two knife styles and add a serrated knife. Serrated knives come in a variety of lengths and styles. Serrated knives that are 8″ -10″ in length are the most versatile. A serrated knife is more of a saw than a knife. Serrated knives are great for foods with a tough or slippering surface and a tender interior. They bite into the food and force you to use a sawing action, preventing crushing. Serrated knives are suitable for foods like crusty French bread and ripe tomatoes. I have cut these foods with a sharp chef’s knife, so a serrated knife isn’t indispensable.
What about all those other knives?
There are different specialty knives designed to do a variety of tasks. You can buy blades designed for filleting fish, boning chickens, slicing roasts, and cutting grapefruit, to name a few. Each specialty knife will perform its task better than a generalist knife. If you are constantly filleting fish, buy a knife for that purpose. However, if you do specialty tasks rarely, you can get by with the primary three.
So what is the big knife secret that has allowed me to use the same knife for over 25 years?
Decades ago, I purchased a foodservice-type chef’s knife from Sam’s club. It cost less than $10, and it was etched with the Tramontina brand. It had a stamped blade and a black textured polypropylene handle. I have no idea what type of steel was used or if the tang was full or partial. None of that made any difference. It was comfortable to hold and non-slippery when wet. It was designed to work.
It came with a sharp edge, and it had reasonably good edge retention. However, all of those things only go so far. The knives that I used at friends’ places had one unforgivable flaw; they were never adequately cared for. As a result, even the most expensive were dull and hazardous.
For the last 25 years, I have run a small, handheld sharpener 5-6 times over the blades of all my smooth-edged cutting knives every single time that I have used them. If I’m sharpening the edge and it feels rough (you can recognize this feeling in short order), I may make 10-12 passes. I start with light pressure, and my strokes become very light as I get close to the end of the process. Phase one sharpens the knife, and phase two hones the blade.
I’m the only one in the house who does this, so in reality, our knives are getting sharpened every 2-3 times they are being used. I do this with all of my straight-edged knives, and they have remained paper-slicing sharp and a delight to use. I believe that Accusharp makes the best version of a small manual sharpener, and it costs around $10. Recently, I gave my Accusharp to my daughter and picked up a similar sharpener by Smith ($7). It does the job, but I think the Accusharp was better.
I prefer to use a simple handheld sharpener that I keep in our knife drawer for convenience. Since it is right there, it reminds me to use it. There are many different pull-through sharpeners, some of which offer several sharpening stages. These fancier devices could potentially refine a knife’s edge better than a single-stage sharpener. However, a simple device’s convenience makes it more likely that I will sharpen a knife. The best sharpener is drawer junk if you don’t use it.
Note: At the time of this writing, most straight edge foodservice knives are cut at a 40-degree inclusive (20-degree per side) angle. The exception is Victorinox, which uses a 30-degree inclusive (15-degree per side) angle. Some Mercer foodservice knives also use a 30-degree inclusive angle. Check with the store or the manufacturer when you buy your knives to determine the proper angle.
In addition, there are other ways to determine a knife’s edge angle, one is the Sharpie method, which is widely discussed on YouTube. Another way is to use a laser edge meter.
What about buying inexpensive knives from big box stores?
It is a mixed bag. Some knives are OK, some can be made serviceable if you reprofile the blade, and some are terrible. One of the most significant issues with many cheap knives is their handles, which can be extremely slippery when wet.
Over the years, some of these knives have entered Kunaland. I already told you about the Farberware Santoku that my wife bought. Many years ago, I purchased a chef’s knife for 88 cents from Walmart to use in our former RV. It was made from super cheap stainless steel, had a slippery handle, and an edge with micro-serrations so it could never be sharpened. I left it in the RV over the winter, and despite being stainless steel, it completely rusted. It was a horrible knife. When I built out Violet the campervan, I bought a colorful five-piece Cuisinart knife set for less than $15 at Home Depot. The knives’ balance was slightly off, but they weren’t too bad. I used them for a couple of years, and about two years ago, I upgraded the set to a Victorinox foodservice chef’s knife and a house-brand foodservice paring knife. I didn’t need to do the upgrade, as I cooked simply in the campervan. I did it because… well, sometimes I just do stuff like that. The bottom line is that you may get an OK knife from a big box store or get a piece of junk. Foodservice knives will vary from good to pretty good, so you can’t go wrong by going the foodservice route.
Don’t listen to knife nerds!
Knife nerds will tell you that pull-through knife sharpeners don’t work and that they will destroy your knives. Of course, this is not true, but I understand how these ideas are promulgated.
You can get a knife sharper using a whetstone or a fancy sharpening system, but you will not use one every time you use your knife. It is much better to have a sharp knife all of the time instead of a blade that is super sharp once a year.
Knife nerds love to set up demonstrations where they show how pull-through knife sharpeners destroy knives. They will start with a new knife and proceed to ruin its edge by repeatedly slicing into granite or some other hard stone; once the blade is completely trashed, they then vigorously run the knife through a pull-through sharpener using so much force that you can see chunks (not dust) of metal coming off the blade. After they do this for a minute, they will test if the knife is sharp by slicing a sheet of paper. The blade has improved, but it is still not very good. The nerd uses the metal chunks and the somewhat dull knife to prove their hypothesis.
This is NOT the way to use these types of sharpeners. I have sharpened my chef’s knife thousands of times over its life. Despite being a very inexpensive knife, there has been no apparent metal loss, and the blade is sharp enough to cut paper. Ten seconds of sharpening before every use makes all of the difference in the world.
I have to go beyond my simple knife sharpener a few times a year, but this is because of knife abuse. If we were more careful with our kitchen knives, a pull-through sharpener would be all that we would ever need. I’ll talk more about knife abuse in a bit.
Proving knife nerds wrong.
Over the last 25 years, I have sharpened my kitchen knives with a pull-through sharpener. If you assume that I did this around three times a week, that is over 4000 sharpenings. I don’t have before and after photos, but the knives look about the same. They also feel sharp, and they are sharp enough to slice paper. However, those tests are relatively subjective. I like objective, quantitative data. Is there a quantitative way to determine the sharpness of a blade? The answer is yes. Can I access such instrumentation? This answer is also yes. I’m obsessive and trained as a scientist; of course, I have geeky testing gadgets!
There is an international standard for knife sharpness called the BESS C scale that measures the amount of force needed to cut a piece of test media. This scale goes from zero to two thousand. The lower the number, the lower the force required, and therefore the sharper the blade. A double edge razor blade has a BESS score of 50, whereas a butter knife has a BESS score of 2000. High-end cutlery right out of the box scores between 260 (super sharp) to 350 (very sharp).
I took my 25-year-old, $10 foodservice knife and sharpened it as I usually would with a pull-through sharpener. Next, I took out my handy dandy Industrial Edge Tester and tested the knife. The BESS value was 250. That is sharper than the sharpest high-end cutlery right out of the box. I then took the same knife, ran it through my Chef’s Choice electric sharpener for a few passes, and repeated the test. That value came back at 191; the sharpness of a utility razor blade!
How do you abuse a knife?
Earlier I mentioned that it is easy to destroy a knife’s edge. Here are some ways to do it.
Banging them around.
Don’t keep your knives in a drawer with a lot of other junk. First, it is dangerous to dig through such a drawer. Second, rubbing up against other hard stuff will damage your knives. There are many ways to protect your knives. Use a knife block, or get a magnetic strip for the wall. You can also use a sleeve to cover the knife’s blade. We have a narrow drawer that we exclusively use for knives. It is not ideal, but it works well enough.
Excessive hard use.
If you regularly use your knife like a chopping cleaver, it will quickly dull. Cleavers have thicker blades and blunter edges for this reason.
Washing in the dishwasher.
Many years ago, this type of damage would happen in our home, but everyone is now trained to wash cutting knives by hand. Unfortunately, a round or two in a dishwasher will pit and dull just about any knife. So don’t wash your cutting knives in the dishwasher even if the manufacturer says that the knife is dishwasher safe.
Dried on food/excessive soaking.
Leaving food to dry on a knife can dull it. Washing a knife with dried food is more dangerous than immediately cleaning one. Also, soaking a dirty knife for hours can dull it. A brief soak is fine.
Cutting on a hard surface.
It would be best if you only cut on softer surfaces than your knife’s blade. This means you should only cut on a wooden or plastic cutting board. Never cut on a glass plate, glass cutting board, or (gasp) directly on a countertop. We cook pizzas on a pizza stone, and sometimes the snacker finds it easier to cut the pizza directly on the stone. This is a disaster as it immediately turns the knife’s edge into trash. I can sometimes reclaim the blade with a pull-through sharpener, but it is often easier to go with Plan B.
What to do when you mess up your blade’s edge.
Simple pull-through sharpeners keep a blade sharp. These would likely be the only sharpeners that a home cook would need in a world of zero abuse. However, as mentioned above, there are many ways to damage a knife’s edge. Sometimes you need to go the extra step to keep your blades ready to battle with the next butternut squash. Here are some options.
Outside sharpener/professional sharpener
Some people sharpen knives for a living. In addition, some hardware stores have automated sharpening machines. For example, my local Ace Hardware will sharpen a knife for about $6. But unfortunately, they can only sharpen at a 20 degree (40 degree-inclusive) knife angle. The good news is that most kitchen knives still use this edge angle.
The electric knife sharpener
There are many of these on the market, some inexpensive. American Test Kitchens reviews knife sharpeners every couple of years, and one brand always comes up on top, Chef’s Choice. Typically their favorite model is over $150, so purchasing such a device can be costly. However, I have had one for more than 20 years. I use it 1-2 times a year to fix badly abused knives. In addition, I use it more frequently to sharpen entire sets of knives for friends and family. Chef’s Choice makes models that sharpen at 15 degrees (30 degrees inclusive) and 20 degrees (40 degrees inclusive). They also sell combo units that do both angles.
American Test Kitchens note that some other brands of electric knife sharpeners make knives duller, so I would stick with their recommendations.
Pros: Does a good job, and is very fast.
Lansky Sharpening System
This system has been around for ages and comes in various versions, the least expensive one costing under $40. It is called a guided system, as you use a guide to make sure that you are sharpening at the proper edge angle. The system allows for many different blade angles, including 20-degrees. Unfortunately, it does not have a 15-degree guide, but it does have one for 17-degrees, which is good enough (at least for me). This gadget does an excellent job.
Other companies (like Smith) make copycat sharpeners. I have also used the Smith system, which works well. Some of the copycats may be a bit less expensive than the original Lansky.
Pros: Easy to master. Does an excellent job. Can do a variety of sharpening angles.
Cons: Fiddly to set up. More time-consuming to sharpen than a powered sharpener.
This simple to use and compact knife sharpener is a favorite among many who say it gives their knives a razor’s edge. I can sharpen knives on this system, but never to the degree of sharpness that others seem to be able to—around $80.
Pros: Compact and easy to use. Does both 20 degree and 15 degree angles.
Cons: I can’t sharpen a knife on a Sharpmaker as well as I can using other systems. You may need to purchase coarser sharpening rods for badly damaged knives, which can cost almost as much as a whole sharpening system. Not motorized, so it is slightly time-consuming.
Other manufacturers make similar systems at a lower price. However, the Sharpmaker is known for its quality build, compact size, and versatility.
Work Sharp knife and tool sharpener Mk2
Don’t let the looks of this gadget scare you; it is super simple to use. It is also fast and gives a very sharp edge. It can not only sharpen kitchen knives, but it can also sharpen scissors, axes, pocket knives, and even lawnmower blades—around $80.
Pros: Works very well and for many sharpening needs. Simple, almost foolproof to use.
Cons: Requires some setup, and you need to change belts during the sharpening process. Sharpening guards can only be set to 25 degrees (50 inclusive) used for pocket knives and 20 degrees (40 inclusive) used for standard kitchen knives. No 15-degree (30 inclusive) angle guide for Asian-style knives.
You can buy the KO (Ken Onion) version of this sharpener, allowing many edge angles, including 15-degrees. But, unfortunately, that unit is more costly at around $120.
Work Sharp Precision Knife Sharpener
This knife sharpener mimics high-end sharpeners like the KME and the Edge Pro, which sell for hundreds of dollars. However, construction is lighter in weight. At only $49, it has a massive following among budget-conscious knife nerds, as it is possible to achieve a mirror edge on a knife. This is a manual system.
Pros: Inexpensive and can sharpen a knife’s edge to a mirror finish. Similar design to pro units that cost hundreds of dollars. Does many edge angles.
Cons: Construction is more lightweight than similar but more expensive sharpeners. Non-electric so it will take longer to sharpen a knife than when using an electric device.
The Precision Knife Sharpener also comes in a professional version for $120 that includes a wider variety of sharpening stones. However, the basic kit is more than enough for most users.
There are other quality sharpening systems, but I’m reluctant to recommend them since I have not personally used them. I would avoid using a whetstone. Professionals get the sharpest edges using whetstones, but it can take years to master sharpening techniques. Amateurs are more likely to mess up a knife’s edge using a whetstone than sharpen it.
What about sharpening serrated knives?
A serrated blade is more of a saw than a knife. Some of the knife sharpeners listed above claim that they can sharpen serrated edges, but most only do a so-so job. I have experimented with sharpening such blades, and the process did improve their edges, but I think that such actions are unnecessary. Serrated knives don’t need to be sharpened as frequently as a straight edge knife because they don’t cut; they tear like a saw. I advise using your inexpensive serrated knife until you feel that it is no longer doing its job, then buy a new one. We have been using ours for decades, so don’t fret that you will need to run to the store every week.
The bottom line
If you want the fanciest, sharpest, most extraordinary kitchen knives you will need to buy the best knives, invest in an excellent sharpening system, learn how to use that system, and sharpen your knives very regularly. It is doubtful that you will do the above.
Most home cooks do the opposite. They rarely or never sharpen their knives, making kitchen work more difficult and accidents more likely. Even an expensive top-of-the-line knife will turn into trash if you don’t hone and sharpen it regularly.
My solution to this problem is a compromise that works very well. I would advise buying three foodservice type knives-an 8″ chef or 7″ Santoku knife, a 3″ -4″ paring knife, and an 8″ -10″ serrated knife. Foodservice-type knives offer the best bang for the buck. They are not pretty, but they work hard and have very comfortable handles that are non-slippery. They must be able to do the job and to reasonably hold their edge. Otherwise, foodservice buyers would shop for a different brand. Their overall quality is a cut above a similarly priced big-box store knife, although they are less stylish.
Big box store knives can also be pretty inexpensive. However, their quality is a mixed bag. Consumers are not knife experts and are more likely swayed by factors, such as name recognition, style, price, and packaging. A consumer may think, “Oh well, this knife is good enough.” In contrast, a professional cook has a working knowledge of how a good cutting tool should perform.
I love my Tramontina, 25-year-old foodservice knife, but there are many other choices. You can get a decent house brand Chef’s knife for well under $10, a known name like Mercer or Dexter for $10-$20, or a popular brand like Victorinox for under $40. Paring knives often cost under $5. Just about any serrated knife will do, but buy one that is 8’-10″ depending on your needs. Expect to pay under $10. A shorter serrated knife may be good for cutting tomatoes, but it will be too short to cut crusty bread, which is one of the main benefits of having such a knife.
Foodservice knives are inexpensively bought at restaurant supply stores (in-person or via the internet). You can sometimes find them at warehouse clubs, and you can find some on Amazon, eBay, and Walmart.com. A quick eBay search yielded a knife similar to mine, along with a short serrated knife, and a paring knife selling as a set for less than $13. Shop around as some outlets charge inflated prices. We have a Gordon foodservice (restaurant supply) in our area, but their prices on cooking equipment are high.
Buy a handheld pull-through sharpener. You can purchase them everywhere, including hardware stores, big box stores, and grocery stores. I like the Accusharp brand, but any brand name will do. Although multi-stage pull-through sharpeners may do a slightly better job, they are bulkier, and you are less likely to pull them out. I like having my little sharpener reside in the same drawer as my knives. If I see it, I will use it. Pull the knife through 6-12 times, depending on need. Start with light-moderate pressure, then hone with very light passes for your last few pulls.
Because you are sharpening every time you use the knife, the quality of the steel is irrelevant. I have used my knife to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for 19 on multiple occasions. Not only was the knife used for food prep, but it was also used to carve an 18-pound turkey. Its edge sharpness was perfectly acceptable during the entire process. It is hard to imagine that any cooking task that a home cook would need to do would be significantly more demanding. Your knife will always be sharp enough for any daily home kitchen task if you take 10 seconds to sharpen it before you use it.
Protect yourself and your knives by keeping them in their own space: a block, a magnetic strip, a sleeve, or their own drawer.
If you are human, you will likely mess up your knives on occasion, and they may need the additional attention that I mentioned in the Plan B section of this post.
Remember, home cooks don’t need to speed chop, and they don’t debone two dozen chickens in a single sitting. As a home cook, your cutting needs are simple. You always should use a sharp knife, but expensive, exotic knives are unnecessary. By spending an additional 10 seconds to sharpen your knife every time you use it, you will be rewarded with a tool that is a pleasure to cut with. The right tool for the job is a sharp knife, and you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to have one.
One of the best parts of adventuring in a van is that you can camp anywhere, including isolated BLM and national forest land. Unfortunately, this often means you are boondocking in less than ideal cell coverage places. Even when using a cell signal booster, it is not uncommon for me to have a single bar, and that signal is only present when I’m seated in the van’s cab area.
Luckily, there is a fantastic fallback for information and entertainment- radio. I have never been in a location where I couldn’t receive multiple AM and FM stations. Of course, I have a car radio, but I don’t use it when the engine isn’t running as I have fallen asleep in the past while listening. I don’t need the hassle of waking up with a dead car battery 20 miles from the nearest town.
I converted my camper van in 2018, and my previous solution was to carry a portable radio with me. This option works great when used outside the vehicle, but reception is impossible inside the van’s signal-blocking metal cabin.
I have left my cargo door open and placed my portable radio half in and half out of the van. At other times I have precariously perched my radio next to the driver’s side window to eke out a scratchy signal. Neither solution is ideal.
Yesterday I installed a better option, a secondary car radio that runs off of my house battery. High-end aftermarket car radios are expensive, but basic models are surprisingly cheap. Over the last few years, radios have been redesigned where almost all of their circuitry can be placed on a single IC chip. This has reduced their price, and it has also allowed fancy features to be built in at no additional cost. These features include large station storage presets, loudness compensation, equalization controls, and the ability to play MP3 files from a flash drive. Most of these inexpensive radios feature Bluetooth, so you can stream from your phone. Many also have a remote control option (either a little RC or a phone app).
You can buy these radios for under thirty dollars. In addition, you will need to buy a second outside radio antenna. Small speakers complete the setup and can be repurposed or purchased. The photos below will outline my simple DIY process.