Many of our technologies for preparing food have remained strikingly consistent for thousands of years. The Greeks and Romans already had pestles and mortars. Knives—perhaps mankind’s most important gastronomic tool—predate the discovery of that other basic technology, fire. Other tools emerged quite suddenly (like the microwave, whose secrets were unlocked during radar tests conducted during World War II) or in fits and starts (like the fork, which had to endure centuries of ridicule before finally gaining widespread acceptance). For every technology that has endured, others have fallen by the wayside. We no longer feel the need for andirons and bastables, cider owls and dangle spits, even though in their day these would have seemed no more superfluous than our oil drizzlers and electric herb choppers.
The evolution of food technology offers a unique window into human history, and Wilson blends history, science, and personal anecdotes as she traces the different technologies that have shaped—or slashed, pounded, whisked, or heated (and reheated)—our meals over the centuries. Along the way she reveals some fascinating facts—showing, for instance, how China’s cuisine, its knives, and its eating utensils are all the product of the country’s historically scarce fuel supply. To conserve energy, chefs rendered their ingredients quick-cooking by using large, multi-purpose chopping knives to reduce food to small, bite-sized morsels. This technique, in turn, gave rise to the chopstick, which cannot cut. What’s more, the discovery of the knife—in Asia and elsewhere—was likely what gave humans our distinctive overbite. Before humans learned to fashion knives out of sharpened rocks, many of us cut our food by clamping it in our front teeth, which gave us perfectly aligned rows of teeth.
But Wilson shows that, far from being adventurous innovators, cooks are a notoriously conservative bunch, and only adopt new technologies with great reluctance. The gas range revolutionized cooking when it was first introduced in the 19th century by promising to end “hearth deaths,” a constant danger for women wearing billowing, flammable clothing. But indoor gas cooking—safer and more efficient—was nevertheless greeted with widespread suspicion when it was first introduced. Many chefs feared it would taint their food or poison their guests. The same hold true for the refrigerator, which was initially condemned as an unnatural technology that risked changing the fundamental “essence” of food. Perhaps the one exception to this technophobia, says Wilson, was the egg beater, new patents for which proliferated so astonishingly in late 19th-century America.
In this fascinating history, Wilson reveals the myriad innovations that have shaped our diets today. An insightful look at how we’ve changed food and how food has changed us, Consider the Fork reveals the astonishing ways in which the implements we use in the kitchen affect what we eat, how we eat, and how we relate to food.
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About the Author
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Pots and Pans 1
With Rice Cooker
Chapter 2 Knife 41
Chapter 3 Fire 73
Chapter 4 Measure 111
With Egg Timer
Chapter 5 Grind 147
With Nutmeg Grater
Chapter 6 Eat 181
Chapter 7 Ice
Chapter 8 Kitchen 247
What People are Saying About This
"Wilson is erudite and whip-smart, but she always grounds her exploration of technological change in the perspective of the eternal harried cook-she's been one-struggling to put a meal on the table. This is mouthwatering history: broad in scope, rich in detail, stuffed with savory food for thought." -Publishers Weekly Starred Review
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Bee Wilson
The Barnes & Noble Review: Why did you write Consider the Fork?
Bee Wilson: As a food writer, many of my waking hours are devoted to food buying it, cooking it, eating it, reading and fantasizing about it. But I suddenly realized that while I gave huge thought to what my family ate, I hadn't paid much attention to the tools and techniques behind all these meals. Once I became aware of it, I saw how much hidden intelligence there was in the kitchen and I wanted to find out more. Technology was everywhere not just in high-tech microwaves or sous-vide machines but in humbler objects such as egg whisks and mortars. I started to shift my focus from the what of cooking the ingredients onto the how. How did we learn to boil things in pots? How did knife skills evolve? Why did it take so long for anyone to invent a decent vegetable peeler? In the middle of stirring a pan of soup, I'd sometimes pause and study my wooden spoon with renewed curiosity. While writing the book, cooking supper sometimes became a lot slower; but also more interesting.
BNR: Why does kitchen equipment matter?
BW: From fire onwards, the way we choose to cook will also determine how we live. Archaeologists know that the cooking vessels and implements we leave behind are a window onto our beliefs. Kitchen gizmos can offer a fascinating glimpse into the preoccupations of any given society. The Mayans lavished great artistry on the gourds from which chocolate was drunk. If you walk around our own kitchenware shops, you would think that the things we are really obsessed with in the West right now are espresso, Panini, and cupcakes.
We sometimes forget that different cuisines are founded not just on different flavors but different tools. Take knives: do you need one or many? Cutting is the most basic form of food preparation far older than cooking. But the way knives have been used, and the form they take, has varied dramatically. Classical French cuisine requires many cutters, from chestnut parers to ham slicers; Chinese cooking needs only one, the tou, used for everything from jointing chickens to cutting garlic into paper-thin slices. This difference reflects the fact that professional French cuisine is one of specialism, while Chinese cooking is guided by frugality.
BNR: Which cooking inventions have been the most important?
BW: Apart from the original invention of cooking with fire, gas stoves were perhaps the single greatest improvement ever to occur in kitchen technology. At the start of the twentieth century, they liberated millions from the pollution, discomfort and sheer time-waste of looking after a fire-powered stove. Looking at the Developing World, where smoke pollution from indoor cooking fires still kills as many as 1.5 million people a year (according to the World Health Organization) you start to see how life changing gas cookery must have been. Electric ovens and microwaves, though significant, didn't improve lives in the same way.
Another game changer was the refrigerator. We often overlook the fact that it altered not just individual kitchens but the entire food supply of America. The industrial refrigerator cars of the mid nineteenth century transformed what people ate: fresh meat, fresh milk, and fresh green vegetables became year-round staples in all parts of the United States for the first time in history.
But not all of the important developments in the kitchen have been such big ones. If you ask cooks which thing they love most in their kitchen, it's striking how often they say a wooden spoon. Cooking is made up of hundreds of small repetitive activities. Hand-held tools that enable us to perform simple tasks more effectively and pleasurably are the ones we become most attached to. Two of the inventions that consistently give me pleasure when I use them are the balloon whisk and the mezzaluna. Both were first used in Italy in the seventeenth century. In the intervening centuries, inventors have devised fancier ways to whip cream and chop herbs. Yet these remain the most satisfying tools for the job.
BNR: What was the strangest thing you learned in your research?
BW: I was amazed to learn that the alignment of our jaws and teeth may be a product of how we use cutlery in our formative years. A remarkable American anthropologist called C. Loring Brace noticed that the overbite which orthodontists tell us is the normal arrangement for our teeth only goes back around 250 years. Before that, surviving skeletons show an edge-to-edge bite, similar to apes. The best explanation for this change in our teeth is the adoption of the knife and fork, which meant that we started to cut food up into small morsels before eating it. Previously, in the West, we ate food using the "stuff-and-cut" method, clamping chewy bread or meat between our incisors. When we stopped using our incisors as a clamp because of the knife and fork - the top layer of teeth continued to grow (or "erupt"), resulting in the overbite.
The clincher I had goosebumps when I first read this is that this change in human teeth can be observed 900 years earlier in China than the West. The reason? Chopsticks.
BNR: What is your favorite kitchen gadget?
BW: Coffee is my greatest addiction and I've become fanatical about the AeroPress, a plastic manual device that makes inky-dark coffee essence using air pressure. Coffee is a good example of how different techniques radically alter the end results, even with the same ingredients. To brew coffee is to do nothing more than mix grounds with hot water and strain out the dregs. But a modern cup of espresso made in a high pressure Italian machine has little in common with a Victorian pot of coffee, boiled for twenty minutes and strained through isinglass (fish bladder). I know which I'd rather drink. And the difference is technology.
November 8, 2012
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If you want a scholarly, in-depth examination of the history of cooking methods and utensils, there are probably other books out there better than this one. But if all you want is a readable briefing on the subject, this book will do the trick. The author uses a mixture of historical evidence and personal anecdotes to show us how our eating utensils came to be and how they have evolved over time. Some of the information she presents is fascinating, such as the fact that how we cut our food may actually have affected our bodies and led to the modern overbite. However, she tends to skim over the surface of most of the subjects she brings up. (I was hoping she would examine the whole topic of how and when the American or “zig-zag” method of eating developed. She does mention it, but only very briefly and without any details.) I did like how she presents everything from the perspective of the ordinary domestic cook who is just trying to put something edible on the table, even though she is obviously a gourmet chef herself. This book gave me an intriguing glimpse into the evolution of our eating tools, but left me wanting more. Note: the Nook version of this book has a lot of errors such as missing or strange punctuation and even some garbled sentences. Luckily, you can still decipher what is meant from the context.
An enchanting read
Enjoy food and food history? Enjoy looking at societal changes and foodways? Read this. If you're not a history buff, and are more interested in the food, skip to the food stuff. You'll still get the best parts of the book.
As a history of cooking and eating, Consider the Fork is a delight throughout. Bee Wilson wittily covers all kinds of arcane stuff about human culinary adventures through history--starting with why we learned to roast our meat way back when. Lots of fascinating details from anthropology, archeology, history, ethnology, and sociology about how and why we cook. And wonderful details about fads in cooking and kitchen equipment. (Are YOU still using your Cuisinart? How about your Romertopf?) She even points out the virtues of such commonplace tools as the whisk and the teaspoon. This book is a winner for anyone who likes to eat, likes to cook, or likes to accumulate kitchen equipment. This Christmas I'm giving a copy to each of my friends in those categories, for their delectation.
This story piqued my interest in the minute aspects of everyday activities in the kitchen. I'll never take my cooking "chores" for granted after reading Bee Wilson's marvelous research into cooking technology.