We work months and months ahead of publication dates, and it was warm and sunny (salad weather, frankly) when the Discover selection committee was reading Bee Wilson’s marvelous history of cooking and culinary tools, Consider the Fork.
And with the end of daylight savings time and the pre-holiday quiet, now seems the perfect time to slide into a chair and enjoy Wilson’s take on pans & pans, knife, and fire, among other delights.
Bee Wilson discusses the “single greatest improvement ever to occur in kitchen technology”, the one item cooks tell her they really love, and the graphic novel her teenage son convinced her to read, among many other things, with Discover Great New Writers.
Why did you write Consider the Fork?
As a food writer, many of my waking hours are devoted to food – buying it, cooking it, eating it, reading and fantasising about it. But I suddenly realised 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.
Why does kitchen equipment matter?
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 form 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 flavours 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.
Which cooking inventions have been the most important?
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 Organisation) 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.
What was the strangest thing you learned in your research?
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.
What is your favourite kitchen gadget?
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.
Who have you discovered lately?
I love the Food 52 website created by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, which has the feel of a cosy kitchen table conversation. My copy of The Food 52 Cookbook is splattered with butter and crumbs. I should really get a cookbook holder.[Volume 2 is coming — Ed.]
My teenage son often lends me graphic novels. I was transfixed by Logicomix, the life of Bertrand Russell in comic book form.
The New Yorker fiction podcast has introduced me to so many great short story writers, whose work I might not have picked up otherwise, including William Trevor and Junot Díaz. This is How You Lose Her, Díaz’s new collection, is searing and funny.
Apart from food, my other main passion is film and my enjoyment of watching old movies went up a notch when I discovered the veteran critic David Thomson, who is as witty as he is knowledgeable about Hollywood. I’m looking forward to his latest book The Big Screen.
Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.