Consider the Fork

By BEE WILSON

First there were the raw-food eaters — from whom the raw-food faddists have completed the circle 2 million years later — but things grew menacing quickly. Knives came next, then playing with fire. Flames brought warmth and light; they made our food more digestible, released more nutrients, helped make our brains big. We would lose ourselves as we gazed upon the flames in wonder, just as — also about 2 million years later — we would lose ourselves gazing into the refrigerator, looking for answers to life’s great questions. We are getting ahead of ourselves.

If you are open to being entertained and instructed by the history of food, then Bee Wilson couldn’t be happier to oblige. In Consider the Fork, she explores the ways in which kitchen tools and techniques affect what and how we eat, with the same owlish brio and dry humor that Jane Grigson brought to vegetables and charcuterie. Wilson has a searching fascination for how these tools came to be, their creative context: “We change the texture, the taste, the nutritional content, and the cultural associations of ingredients simply by using different tools and techniques to prepare them.”

Her chapters capture big moments and themes — pots, the knife, fire, measurement, ice, the kitchen — and within them she is unafraid to go back into the mists of archaeology to gain an early foothold on a subject and follow it to all the exquisite particularities: how pots marked the leap from heating to cuisine, and how they went mostly unchanged from the Bronze Age to the eighteenth century, when the batterie de cuisine took hold in the posh homes and vied with the one-pot meal (and sated the English copper industry); how knives and fuel broke down into cultures of chopping and cultures of carving, and how knives were gradually defanged at the table; how the open hearth, before which women too often exploded into flames, became the closed range; why Americans persist with the ludicrous “cup” as a measure for dry goods; why the teaspoon’s wide popularity, but not the berry spoon or the tomato spoon; who were the scullions, washpots, drudges, turnspits?

Wilson coaxes illuminations out of the everyday. We may spend a lot of time in front of it, but the vast cultural import of the refrigerator may have passed you by until now. For one thing, it allowed for weekly shopping, which did in the intimacy of the daily rounds to the butcher, vegetable seller, dry-goods merchant, and wine store, changing our neighborhoods and the conduct of our lives from the ground up. For another, the refrigerator is a dream of plenty, a very American dream, “and it became a new focal point for the kitchen, taking over from the old hearth.” Now we congregate in front of the fridge. In the United States, it all happened very fast.

A better can opener, on the other hand, took a century to develop. Because for the most part kitchen tools change slowly, and game-changers, like gas-powered heat — “the single greatest improvement ever to occur in kitchen technology,” signaling our elemental move away from starting and maintaining a fire — are few and far between, writes Wilson in this smart, regaling survey. In the kitchen are found binding rituals of family and place, and people aren’t looking for big changes at the last minute. Only the genuine article, helpful and fitting like all the best tools, will gain lasting admittance.

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