Consider the fork A history of how we cook and eat

Bee Wilson

Book - 2012

This book offers a novel approach to food writing, presenting a history of eating habits and mores through the lens of the technologies we use to prepare, serve, and consume food. It tells the history of food through its tools across different eras and continents to present a fully rounded account of humans' evolving relationship to kitchen technology. From the birth of the fork in Italy as it discovered pasta, to culture wars over spoons in Restoration England, and tests for how to choose the perfect pan, this book examines the incredible creations that have shaped how and what we cook. Encompassing inventors, scientists, cooks and chefs, this is the previously unsung history of our kitchens.

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New York : Basic Books 2012.
Main Author
Bee Wilson (-)
Physical Description
xxiii, 327 p. : ill. ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Pots and pans: with rice cooker
  • Knife: with mezzaluna
  • Fire: with toaster
  • Measure: with egg timer
  • Grind: with nutmeg grater
  • Eat: with tongs
  • Ice: with molds
  • Kitchen: with coffee.
Review by Choice Review

British food writer and historian Wilson uncovers the origin and evolution of ubiquitous cooking utensils. Knives, pots, and pans--and the concept of cooking food over fire--have changed very little over time, but have radically altered human culture and biology. Though Wilson presents this topic in a personable, humorous manner, she has done impeccable research, citing from a wide variety of experts in the field. She devotes separate chapters to cooking tools, methods and techniques for cooking, and eating utensils, and ends with "Kitchen." What makes this book different from other culinary history books is that it also provides economic, political, social, and technological reasons regarding why more "modern" cooking utensils failed. A wide audience of foodies, historians, anthropologists, and technologists will appreciate this book. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through researchers/faculty; general readers. R. S. Wexelbaum Saint Cloud State University

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by New York Times Review

"WHICH comes first, the stir-fry or the wok?" It may sound like a bad joke, but the answer holds the key to one of the world's great cuisines. Bee Wilson's supple, sometimes playful style in "Consider the Fork," a history of the tools and techniques humans have invented to feed themselves, cleverly disguises her erudition in fields from archaeology and anthropology to food science. Only when you find yourself rattling off statistics at the dinner table will you realize how much information you've effortlessly absorbed. Wilson, an award-winning British food journalist and historian who contributes the "Kitchen Thinker" column to The Sunday Telegraph, is also, incidentally, the daughter of the biographer and novelist A. N. Wilson. Her fourth book (following histories of beekeeping, food scandals and the sandwich) proves she belongs in the company of Jane Grigson, one of the grandes dames of English food writing. Like Grigson's, Wilson's insouciant scholarship and companionable voice convince you she would be great fun to spend time with in the kitchen. So, which does come first, the stir-fry or the wok? Wilson's answer is, "Neither." To solve the riddle, we have to take a step back and contemplate cooking fuel: firewood was scarce, and with a wok you could cook more quickly after chopping food into bite-size morsels with a tou, or Chinese cleaver. Chopsticks were also part of this "symbiosis." The Japanese (who adopted chopsticks from the Chinese) had a different problem. Because of Shinto taboos about contamination, they would no more eat with a stranger's chopsticks, even if washed, than they would borrow his underwear. Therefore, at the beginning of the 18th century, they invented waribashi, those disposable chopsticks, joined at the top, you see today in so many Asian restaurants. Unfortunately, waribashi precipitated an ecological disaster. The Japanese use and discard 23 billion pairs a year, which is bad enough, but the Chinese have now taken up the custom and produce 63 billion pairs annually. This vast consumption has resulted in a shortage of appropriate wood in China akin, at least spiritually, to the one that originally gave rise to the invention of chopsticks thousands of years ago. (In the ultimate irony, China, Japan and Korea now import chopsticks from a manufacturing plant in Georgia, stamped "Made in US.A.") The British, on the other hand, with their abundance of firewood, went in for enormous haunches of beef spit-roasted in front of a roaring hearth. And spitroasting entailed a universe of now defunct technologies like gravity jacks, which replaced child- or canine-powered turnspits. (There was even a dog of that name with short legs and a long body, specially bred, as Wilson puts it, to "trundle around" in a large wheel connected to the spit with a pulley.) Medieval Britons consumed the final product by clamping the meat between their incisors and tugging or cutting off the hunk that remained in their mouths with the sharp personal eating knife they carried at all times. By the 18th century, they had adopted the fork, and in changing their table manners also changed their physiognomy. Wilson cites the provocative theories of the aptly named anthropologist Charles Loring Brace to show that the overbite we consider a normal part of our anatomy is only about 200 to 250 years old. If we still used the inelegant technique Brace termed the "stuff-and-cut," we would have an "edge-to-edge" bite like that of chimpanzees. The fossil record shows that the Chinese, who have been cutting up their food very small for centuries, developed an overbite 800 to 1,000 years earlier than Europeans. And then there's the spork, a combination of spoon and fork in name as well as shape, which has developed a fond if tongue-in-cheek following in the past several decades. During his second year in office, Bill Clinton called it "the symbol of my presidency" during a humorous speech delivered at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Dinner in Washington. "

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [November 18, 2012]
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* At every turn, Wilson's history of the technology of cooking and eating upends another unexamined tradition, revealing that utensils and practices now taken for granted in kitchen and at table have long and remarkable histories. The knife evolved from primitive humans' need to reduce food to manageable portions. Thermometers helped make home ovens practical. Some of the first pleas for animal rights arose from the use of caged dogs to turn spits in front of kitchen hearths. Most societies weigh recipe ingredients, but Americans continue to measure ingredients by volume. Wilson traces this deviation back to the difficulty of lugging scales westward across the frontier. Wilson's book teems with other delightful insights, laying to rest such questions as what Chinese parents say to their children to persuade them to finish their food, since they can't employ the typical American admonition about children starving in China. (Answer: Don't disrespect the sweat of the hardworking rice farmer.)--Knoblauch, Mark Copyright 2010 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Some of humanity's least sung but most vital gadgets are celebrated in this delicious history of cooking technology. Food historian Wilson (Swindled) surveys eons of cookware, from the Neolithic Age's roasting spits and revolutionary clay pots-by enabling the preparation of mushy liquid foods, they kept toothless people from starving to death-to today's programmable refrigerators and high-tech sous-vide cookers. She deftly presents a wealth of scientific lore on everything from the thermodynamics of boiling to the metallurgical properties of knives. But she is also alive to the social context-the medieval taste for highly refined and processed foods, she notes, relied on armies of exhausted kitchen maids whose constant grinding, sifting, and chopping made them the Cuisinarts of their day-and cultural resonances of cooking customs. (She contrasts the aggressive piercing and carving of food at Western knife-and-fork meals with the gentle gathering of bite-sized morsels by chopsticks at Chinese tables.) 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. (Oct. 9) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

From British food writer Wilson (Sandwich: A Global History, 2010, etc.), a savory survey of kitchen implements and their impact. We normally apply the word "technology" to military and industrial equipment, writes the author, but in fact developments in those fields often carry over to the kitchen. The inventor of stainless steel was trying to improve gun barrels, and the creator of the microwave oven was working on naval radar systems. In addition, innovations in cookware can have enormous social impact: Before food was cooked in a pot, people who lost their teeth and couldn't chew literally starved to death. In the lively prose of a seasoned journalist, Wilson blends personal reminiscences with well-researched history to illustrate how the changing nature of our equipment affects what we eat and how we cook. "Knife" explores the difference between Western eaters, who cut big pieces of cooked food at the table, and the Chinese wielders of a tou, who chop up food into equal-sized pieces to be quickly cooked, saving energy in a country with limited fuel. "Fire" traces the evolution from open hearths to enclosed stoves, which brought women into the professional kitchen after centuries when their billowing skirts posed too much of a fire hazard for them to serve as cooks. In "Grind," Wilson notes that the endless labor involved in producing smooth, highly refined food wasn't an issue in a world where middle-class and wealthy Europeans had lots of servants; Wilson praises the Cuisinart as a revolutionary device "for the transformation of cooking from pain to pleasure." Although she enjoys and vividly describes time-honored, painstaking methods of cooking, she also appreciates modern conveniences. Eating utensils, refrigeration and measurement (with a bemused look at Americans' affection for measuring by volume as opposed to the much more accurate method of weighing) are among the other topics Wilson addresses in a narrative whose light tone enlivens formidable scholarship. Rarely has a book with so much information been such an entertaining read.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.