November 10, 2012

Consider the Fork

Our kitchens are filled with ghosts. You may not see them, but you could not cook as you do without their ingenuity:  the potters who first enabled us to boil and stew; the knife forgers; the resourceful engineers who designed the first refrigerators; the pioneers of gas and electric ovens; the scale makers; the inventors of eggbeaters and peelers. The food we cook is not only an assemblage of ingredients. It is the product of technologies, past and present. One sunny day, I decide to make a quick omelette for my lunch, a puffy golden oval in the French rolled tradition. On paper, it consists of nothing but eggs (free range); sweet, cold butter; and sea salt, but the true components are many more. There is the fridge from which I fetch the butter and the old battered aluminum frying pan in which I cook it, whose surface is seasoned from ten years of use. There is the balloon whisk that beats the eggs, though a fork would do just as well. The countless cookery writers whose words warned me not to overbeat. The gas burner that enables me to get the pan hot enough but not so hot the eggs burn or get rubbery. The spatula that rolls the golden-brown omelette onto the plate. ...
What I want to tell you most about Bee Wilson's book Consider the Fork:  A History of How We Cook and  Eat,  is how  much I enjoyed reading it. As someone whose greatest passions are for reading and cooking, reading about cooking has to be the perfect pleasure, and sometimes it's all that I could hope for. :)

As the author explains in the intro, there are a lot of books about the history of food, and restaurants, and chefs, but not as many about the history of the tools we use to cook and eat.  In a nutshell, Consider the Fork is divided into chapters about pots and pans, knives, fire (and stoves), measuring, grinding, utensils to eat with, and kitchens, and talks about the evolution of each of these with anecdotes drawn from all periods of history, anthropology, science, advertising, etc.  So, for example, along the way you'll learn that it was a status symbol for the nobility to eat foods that clearly had to be pounded and pureed by hand by servants (and that a recipe for an herby paste in an ancient Roman cookbook looks and tastes disgusting); that the balloon whisks we use today are not very different from 200-year-old ones, and that a 19th-century ice cream maker invented by a Victorian cookbook writer makes perfect gelato in five minutes and works better than anything invented before or since (with the unfortunate exception that it was made from zinc, which leaches toxins into the eggs and cream).  Some of the observations are funny, or at least they hit home. {I loved the discussion of how the American market for little pots of yogurt might have come about because people needed and wanted things to fill up the shelves in their newer, bigger refrigerators. Um, OK ... busted.}

It's not just the subject matter, though.  This is a perfect book to read for long stretches or to dip into, here and there, when you can (and I need books like that).  And the author's voice is an important part of it, too. It's very conversational, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes a little exasperated.  Bee Wilson comes across as an accomplished, but still kind of ordinary, home cook, and it's fun to read about her experiments with sous-vide machines or just about the ordinary things that she has in her kitchen (and I have in mine) and how they fit in with what she's writing about.

Not to be over-dramatic, but I might find it hard to go into my kitchen after reading this book without thinking differently, and with a new sense of respect, about my wooden spoons, or my oven, or what it means to eat something with my fingers. And since I've been thinking that I've lost a little of my love for baking and cooking lately, in the press of other things, this won't be a bad thing at all. 

There is still one more component to this meal, however:  the impulse to make it in the first place. Kitchens only come alive when you cook in them. What really drives technology is the desire to use it. This omelette lunch would never have been made without my mother, who first taught me that the kitchen was a place where good things happen.
{I'm grateful to Basic Books for letting me preview this book via NetGalley.}


Karen K. said...

I'm on the waiting list for this one at the library! I love reading about cooking and social history. I'm so looking forward to this one.

I wonder if I'll need delicious snacks to eat while reading it?

Lisa May said...

I have this one from the library, but I got distracted by a couple of other books. I need to read it, since it's coming due and the waiting list is long - thanks for inspiring me :)

Vintage Reading said...

Fascinating extracts. Good writing about food is so rare. I'd like to read this.