Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat

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by Bee Wilson
     
 

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Since prehistory, humans have striven to tame fire and ice, and have braved the business ends of mashers, scrapers, and razor-sharp knives—all in the name of creating something delicious (or, at least, edible). The technology of food matters even when we barely notice it is there, but in recent years kitchen technology has become increasingly elaborate and…  See more details below

Overview

Since prehistory, humans have striven to tame fire and ice, and have braved the business ends of mashers, scrapers, and razor-sharp knives—all in the name of creating something delicious (or, at least, edible). The technology of food matters even when we barely notice it is there, but in recent years kitchen technology has become increasingly elaborate and eye-catching, transforming the old-fashioned home kitchen into a bristling stainless steel laboratory. Far from a new development, however, the modern kitchen is only the most recent iteration of an ancient lineage of food technology, as acclaimed food historian Bee Wilson reveals in Consider the Fork.

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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Editorial Reviews

In her latest book, award-winning food writer and author Bee Wilson (Swindled; Sandwich; The Hive) opens the doors of our kitchen cabinets and invites us down portals of food history that we never imagined. Mixing scientific stories of cooking technologies and savory tales of eating customs with tidbits of social history, she introduces us to culinary lore far more inviting than anything your microwave can offer. Whether she's escorting us into Neolithic Age caves for a lesson on ancient cooking techniques, chatting about the science of knives or describing how Chinese deforestation helped create the wok, "Doctor Bee" keeps us riveted. A fine recreational read for foodies.

The New York Times Book Review - Dawn Drzal
Bee Wilson's supple, sometimes playful style in Consider the Fork…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…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.
The Washington Post - Bonnie S. Benwick
…[an] ambitious, blenderized treatise. The path from Stone Age flints to sous-vide machines whirs so smoothly that I found myself re-reading passages just to trace how the author managed to work in a Victorian copper batterie de cuisine along the way.
Publishers Weekly
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)
From the Publisher
“Reading [Consider the Fork] is like having a long dinner table discussion with a fascinating friend.... Leisurely but lively...a pure joy to read.”
Los Angeles Times

“Delightful.... [An] ebulliently written and unobtrusively learned survey.”
Harper’s Magazine

“[A] sparkling...fascinating and entertaining book.”
The Sunday Times (London)

“One part science, one part history, and a generous dash of fun.”
Good Housekeeping

“Wilson’s insouciant scholarship and companionable voice convince you she would be great fun to spend time with in the kitchen.... [She is] a congenial kitchen oracle.”
New York Times Book Review

“Fluid yet engaging, just like a good conversation over a pan of sizzling vegetables.”
New Republic

“A delightfully informative history of cooking and eating.”
ELLE Magazine

“Wilson is a good tour guide.... [A] dizzying, entertaining ride.”
Wall Street Journal

“A book to savour.... You will never look at a kitchen knife in the same way again.”
The Independent (London)

Kirkus Reviews
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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780465033324
Publisher:
Basic Books
Publication date:
10/09/2012
Sold by:
Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
352
Sales rank:
172,177
File size:
1 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"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

Meet the Author

Bee Wilson is a food writer, historian, and author of three previous books, including Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee, which was named a BBC 4 Book of the Week. Wilson served as the food columnist for the New Statesman for five years, and currently writes a weekly food column for The Sunday Telegraph’s Stella magazine. She was named BBC Radio’s Food Writer of the year in 2002, and was a Guild of Food Writers Food Journalist of the Year in 2004, 2008, and 2009. Wilson’s writing has also appeared in The Sunday Times, The Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker, and The London Review of Books. Wilson earned her PhD from Trinity College, Cambridge and also attended the University of Pennsylvania on a Thouron Award fellowship.

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