The next time you turn on The Food Network or peruse the latest issue of Bon Appétit, you may want to consider that cooking has not always been pleasurable or even a safe experience. As Bee Wilson points out in her new book, Consider the Fork, the “[t]wo basic mechanisms of cooking—slicing and heating—are fraught with danger. For most of human history, cooking has been a largely grim business… .”
Wilson, a Cambridge-educated historian and food writer, gives us an engaging, witty, and well researched examination of this "grime business" throughout the ages.
The various chapters in Wilson’s book focus on a different aspect of cooking or eating. For example, one chapter is simply titled “Knife,” while another is called “Pots and Pans,” and another one is called “Fire.” What all these chapters have in common is how human ingenuity (or lack thereof ) has used technology throughout the ages in the taming of fire and ice, so as to get decent tasting food into our mouths. We sometimes forget what a technological leap it must have been when someone invented the first oven or baked the first loaf of bread. As Wilson states, “[t]he history of food is the history of technology.”
Wilson makes some pointed observations in her book. In her chapter on pots and pans, for example, Wilson notes that the introduction of pottery expanded the range of food that could be eaten, namely small grains, such as wheat, maize, or rice. Without the ability to cook these grains slowly in a pot filled with liquid, they would have been impossible to eat. Consequently, grain remains the mainstay of the human diet to this day.
Wilson also does a lot to bring some of our romantic notions of cooking back to their more prosaic origins. Take the mortal and pestle. Most well-appointed kitchens have one. In fact, Julia Child mentions that hers was the first real piece of kitchen equipment she purchased while in France. It seems so romantic to use one from time to time to pound garlic into a paste for aioli. Not so for the poor cooks who had to make the highly processed foods favored by the well-to-do in preindustrial Europe. Though it is undoubtedly true that, in an era when everyone had bad teeth, eating meals the consistency of baby food certainly made life a tad bit easier. However, eating such foods was also a status symbol. Only the wealthy could employ the labor needed to engage in the incredibly time consuming task of pounding away almonds for hours in a mortar and pestle.
As the examples above illustrate, it is Wilson’s ability to place the “how” we cook into its proper historical and social context to give us the “why” of cooking that makes her book so fascinating. Case in point. Why are those little disposable wooden chopsticks so ubiquitous? It is because in Japanese culture, using another person’s chopsticks is considered in the Shinto religion to be spiritually disgusting. As a result, the Japanese have developed the phenomenon of waribashi—disposable chopsticks. Wilson reveals that this is not a recent practice but has been used in Japanese restaurants since the 18th Century. Japan now uses and disposes of about 23 billion pairs a year! So popular have these disposable chopsticks become throughout Asia that, as demand has exceeded supply, an American company in Georgia, now exports these chopsticks to Asia with “Made in the USA” stamped on them!
Anyone who has an interest in food, cooking, and history will enjoy this pleasurable and well written book. And while Wilson takes us from 8,000 B.C.E. to the early 21st Century and back with relative, enjoyable ease, one theme always emerges (aptly represented by the humble wooden spoon): what drives technology is the desire to use it, whether old or new. We keep going back to the wooden spoon or the microwave not only out of a basic need to eat, but out of a basic impulse to make that meal in the first place.