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

( 7 )


Since prehistory, humans have braved the business ends of knives, scrapers, and mashers, all in the name of creating something delicious—or at least edible. In Consider the Fork, award-winning food writer and historian Bee Wilson traces the ancient lineage of our modern culinary tools, revealing the startling history of objects we often take for granted. Charting the evolution of technologies from the knife and fork to the gas range and the sous-vide cooker, Wilson offers unprecedented insights into how we've ...
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Since prehistory, humans have braved the business ends of knives, scrapers, and mashers, all in the name of creating something delicious—or at least edible. In Consider the Fork, award-winning food writer and historian Bee Wilson traces the ancient lineage of our modern culinary tools, revealing the startling history of objects we often take for granted. Charting the evolution of technologies from the knife and fork to the gas range and the sous-vide cooker, Wilson offers unprecedented insights into how we've prepared and consumed food over the centuries—and how those basic acts have changed our societies, our diets, and our very selves.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

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
"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
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.
The Barnes & Noble Review

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.

Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at

Reviewer: Peter Lewis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780594531739
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 10/9/2012
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

An AudioFile Earphones Award winner, Alison Larkin is a classically trained actress who has appeared on Broadway with the Royal National Theatre and off-Broadway with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her bestselling novel The English American made the top ten list of best author audiobook narrations of all time.
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Table of Contents

Introduction ix

Chapter 1 Pots and Pans 1

With Rice Cooker

Chapter 2 Knife 41

With Mezzaluna

Chapter 3 Fire 73

With Toaster

Chapter 4 Measure 111

With Egg Timer

Chapter 5 Grind 147

With Nutmeg Grater

Chapter 6 Eat 181

With Tongs

Chapter 7 Ice

With Molds

Chapter 8 Kitchen 247

With Coffee

Acknowledgments 281

Notes 283

Bibliography 291

Index 311

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Interviews & Essays

Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Bee Wilson

The Barnes & Noble Review: Why did you write Consider the Fork?

Bee Wilson: As a food writer, many of my waking hours are devoted to food — buying it, cooking it, eating it, reading and fantasizing about it. But I suddenly realized 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.

BNR: Why does kitchen equipment matter?

BW: 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 from 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 flavors 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.

BNR: Which cooking inventions have been the most important?

BW: 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 Organization) 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.

BNR: What was the strangest thing you learned in your research?

BW: 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.

BNR: What is your favorite kitchen gadget?

BW: 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.

November 8, 2012

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 7 )
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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 13, 2012

    If you want a scholarly, in-depth examination of the history of

    If you want a scholarly, in-depth examination of the history of cooking methods and utensils, there are probably other books out there better than this one. But if all you want is a readable briefing on the subject, this book will do the trick.

    The author uses a mixture of historical evidence and personal anecdotes to show us how our eating utensils came to be and how they have evolved over time. Some of the information she presents is fascinating, such as the fact that how we cut our food may actually have affected our bodies and led to the modern overbite. However, she tends to skim over the surface of most of the subjects she brings up. (I was hoping she would examine the whole topic of how and when the American or “zig-zag” method of eating developed. She does mention it, but only very briefly and without any details.) I did like how she presents everything from the perspective of the ordinary domestic cook who is just trying to put something edible on the table, even though she is obviously a gourmet chef herself.

    This book gave me an intriguing glimpse into the evolution of our eating tools, but left me wanting more.

    Note: the Nook version of this book has a lot of errors such as missing or strange punctuation and even some garbled sentences. Luckily, you can still decipher what is meant from the context.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2013


    An enchanting read

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  • Posted January 11, 2013

    Foodie w/an Anthropological Bent?

    Enjoy food and food history? Enjoy looking at societal changes and foodways? Read this. If you're not a history buff, and are more interested in the food, skip to the food stuff. You'll still get the best parts of the book.

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  • Posted December 14, 2012

    A Non-caloric Christmas Treat

    As a history of cooking and eating, Consider the Fork is a delight throughout. Bee Wilson wittily covers all kinds of arcane stuff about human culinary adventures through history--starting with why we learned to roast our meat way back when. Lots of fascinating details from anthropology, archeology, history, ethnology, and sociology about how and why we cook. And wonderful details about fads in cooking and kitchen equipment. (Are YOU still using your Cuisinart? How about your Romertopf?) She even points out the virtues of such commonplace tools as the whisk and the teaspoon. This book is a winner for anyone who likes to eat, likes to cook, or likes to accumulate kitchen equipment. This Christmas I'm giving a copy to each of my friends in those categories, for their delectation.

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  • Posted November 22, 2012

    This story piqued my interest in the minute aspects of everyday

    This story piqued my interest in the minute aspects of everyday activities in the kitchen. I'll never take my cooking "chores" for granted after reading Bee Wilson's marvelous research into cooking technology.

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    Posted April 2, 2013

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    Posted October 15, 2014

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