by Claire Cella • Photography by Melanie Grizzel
Strolling through the Texas Farmers Market at Mueller, I hear it: the gentle, unbroken purr marked by a series of fierce, quavering trills. It’s a sound that instantly evokes my childhood years, and as I continue down the rows of fruits and vegetables, I find the origin of the familiar noise. In the faint morning light, a man is hunched over a machine—carefully drawing a silver blade across a whirling belt with the subtlety of a violin player—the shrill grinding of the metal ringing out every time the steel hits the belt. As the daughter of a knife sharpener, my heart sings along, and I find contentment in the realization that the tradition—oft-deemed a dying trade—is, thankfully, not yet extinct.
The well-worn hands that hold the knife belong to John Cruthirds, and every so often, he runs tender fingertips across the glinting edge to feel the angle and the overall balance of the blade and the handle. It’s a movement I’ve seen performed many times before, and while it’s skillful, it’s also intuitive.
A good knife sharpener knows the feel of a knife when it’s right. It takes Cruthirds about five minutes to find this perfection—depending, of course, on the size of the knife, its condition and how much he’s talking to his customers as he works. “I want to make sure every knife is considered individually,” he says. “That’s where my quality is. If I can’t put quality to every knife, I don’t want to do it.”
Matt Greer, executive chef of Stuffed Cajun Meat Market and Specialty Foods in Cedar Park, takes it a step further, saying that Cruthirds actually cares about each and every knife. “He takes knives I’ve had for three years and turns them into brand new blades,” Greer says. “I go through thousands of pounds of chicken and pork every week here, so we use our knives heavily and they get beat up. But he makes ’em right every two weeks. Without John, my job would be ten times harder.”
Yet, unlike my father and many other knife sharpeners, Cruthirds didn’t start his working life in this trade, or with the benefit of a generations-old knife-sharpening lineage tracing back to early Italy or Spain. In fact, he only began about two years ago. Cruthirds grew up on a 20-acre coastal farm in Mississippi with three siblings, who would all be raised to develop a deep Southern drawl and an ever deeper drive to, as Cruthirds says, “get up and go out and work.”
And that’s exactly what he did. After finishing trade school, Cruthirds pursued a career in mechanical maintenance in major U.S. power plants across the South. But when it came time to think about retirement 35 years later, he knew he wouldn’t be satisfied with the sudden lifestyle change that would bring. He still wanted to work, but he wanted to pursue something “more in line with enjoyment,” he says. “I’ll die active because that’s just me. And I enjoy what I do—I really do. It gives me a connection with people. I don’t want to come home and sit and do nothing.”
Instead, he perfected the skill of knife sharpening, and now he’s the go-to guy for a few restaurant groups in Cedar Park, as well as chefs and individuals across Austin. On the weekends, Cruthirds’ Assured Sharp booth provides market patrons at Cedar Park and Mueller an opportunity to obtain the one thing every kitchen really needs. “I don’t think people realize how badly they need their knives sharpened,” he says, explaining that he receives high praise from customers after they’ve sliced and diced with their newly honed blade. He believes that every home probably has something, right now, that needs sharpening—whether it’s a knife, a pair of scissors, garden tools or food processor blades. “I know that,” he says with assurance.
Of course, he’s happy to sharpen anything, or at least try. In the past two years, he’s seen a host of unusual objects—everything from mangled spoons that got caught in a garbage disposal, to foot-long samurai swords, to knives that look like something out of a science fiction horror movie. “I’m always up for a sharpening challenge,” he says. “I never know what’s going to walk up to my booth.”
He hopes, though, that it’s you and your knives. To find him, just listen for the booth that’s singing with that distinctive, nostalgic hum.