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The Chelsea Bombing: When a Kitchen Tool Becomes a Weapon

There are many deeply upsetting things about the Chelsea bomber, and one that I keep coming back to is that he made weaponry out of a kitchen tool.

Anyone who has seen my favorite movie, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” knows that pressure cookers are dangerous. Do you remember the scene toward the end, where Holly gets engaged to the rich Brazilian, José da Silva Pereira, and makes a sweet, unsuccessful attempt to domesticate herself? She listens to Portuguese-language records, knits some sort of scarf-sweater thing that goes on forever and tries to cook arroz con pollo in her pressure cooker. But when Paul Varjak — earnest neighbor, kept man, recently-published author and true love interest (at least in the movie version) — knocks on the door, Holly abandons her cooking project just as the pressure cooker explodes, sending yellow rice and chicken shooting up to the ceiling. For both the culinary and romantic plots it’s a humorous-if-cautionary tale about making sure you’ve released the pressure before removing the lid.

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It would have been a different scene altogether if the pressure cooker in question had been packed with shrapnel, as it was on West 23rd Street Saturday night.

The new generation of pressure cookers don’t explode anymore. Several years ago I reviewed a whole gaggle of them for Epicurious. And every one of them had a locking device that wouldn’t allow the cook to take off the lid until all the pressure had been released, thus rendering the devices harmless.

I love mine. As a working mom, I use and appreciate it, because it allows me to make the kind of slow-cook meals I adore in 45 minutes flat. (I’m not a planner. If I were, I’d set up a crockpot in the morning. I prefer being able to decide at 6 p.m. that I’m making Moroccan chicken stew for dinner, and have the meat falling off the bone by 7.)

Do terrorists know from pressure cookers? Apparently they do. The first time I heard of one being used to make a bomb was after the Boston Marathon in April 2013, because that’s what those Tsarnaev brothers did. And then I read that pressure cookers had already been used in the Middle East as weapons. If I was an FBI profiler, Clarice Starling or that woman on “The Blacklist,” I’d surmise that this was the work of a person who was mad at his mother. Of course I know nothing about these things. I do know about pressure cookers.

I just found out that Ahmad Rahami’s family actually own a restaurant, First American Fried Chicken, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. They are food people. They are, apparently, hospitable and welcoming folks.

So here’s a question: In making his jerry-rigged bombs, did the perpetrator take a pressure cooker from his mother?

I’m not making light of this situation in the least; I’m trying to make sense of things by putting them into a context I can understand. I feel for that mother; I can’t imagine what it must be like to find out that your son is a terrorist. I wonder if she cooked side by side with him at home or at the restaurant, and whether she showed him how to use a pressure cooker, as I will show my boys, who recently asked me for cooking lessons.

I’m just afraid that somewhere in New Jersey, there’s a distraught woman sitting in front of the TV wondering if she should have made her weeknight dinners with a crockpot instead.

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Liza Schoenfein is food editor of the Forward. This is adapted from an essay she wrote on her personal blog Life, Death & Dinner in the spring of 2013 after the bombing at the Boston Marathon. Contact her at [email protected], or on Twitter, @LifeDeathDinner

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