Sunday, February 09, 2014


"There have been books on potatoes, cod, and chocolate, and histories of cookbooks, restaurants, and cooks. The kitchen and its tools are more or less absent. As a result, half the story is missing. This matters."

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson is about much more than the often repeated history about how nobody used a fork until whenever it was supposed to have been discovered (or maybe re-discovered, since maybe the Romans used forks).

This highly amusing and interesting book talks not only about the fork, but about the spork. It also describes the history of the hearth and various types of cook stoves and spit roasting devices; cook pots and pans and skillets; rice cookers; knives, Chinese cleavers, and other cutting or mincing tools; egg beaters; spoons; the blender; ice boxes and refrigerators; and other interesting devices. The author explores the history of level measurements in the US and of measuring by weight elsewhere. She talks about the history of canning food, and the very slow development of an effective can opener.

Many elements affect the way people eat. One that's explored in a way that's new to me is how the supply of firewood or other fuel affects the way food is cooked. I knew that the combination of Chinese cleaver to cut food in clever small bits and the use of the wok to cook quickly was a response to scarce fuel, and Wilson explores the result of this fact. Less obvious: the habit of roasting huge cuts of meat, even sides of beef or whole smaller animals in an open fire was available in England because fuel was plentiful. However, the supply of cooking fuel in France was less plentiful, so other techniques of cooking became more prevalent. So the French call the English "les Rosbifs."

Wilson discusses how slaves or servants in the kitchen have affected attitudes towards labor-intensive cooking, quoting various people including the Roman philosopher Seneca: "I like food that a household of slaves has not prepared, watching it with envy, that has not been ordered many days in advance or served up by many hands." And in our own time, she points out that we depend on invisible workers far from our own kitchens. "We do not see the hands in the chicken factory that boned the breasts… nor the workers who labored to assemble the parts of our whizzy food processors. We only see a pile of ingredients and a machine ready to do our bidding. Alone in our kitchens, we feel entirely emancipated."

I particularly liked Wilson's awareness in the book of the differences among various social classes when it came to cooking and kitchen equipment. She quotes a great comment from Laura Ingalls Wilder -- "The rich get their ice in the summer, but the poor get theirs in the winter."

1 comment:

~~louise~~ said...

Don't laugh, Mae but I once considered writing such a book with pretty much the same title. Boy oh boy, I sure am glad someone else has done it! Now this is a book I will be looking for!

Thanks for sharing, Mae...