“Consider the Fork”


Despite all the books that appear about potatoes, cod and chocolates, and histories of cookbooks, restaurants and cooks, it seems unlikely that any have come close to chronicling gastronomic, cultural, economic and scientific aspects in such fascinating detail as Bee Wilson does in “Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat” (line drawings, 320 pages, Basic Books, 2012, paperback. 16.00). Wilson explores the ways the implements we use in the kitchen affect what we eat, how we eat, how we feel about what we eat, and the implications of the underlying technology.

Sometimes utensils brew a better cup of coffee. That in itself has more than obvious significance. “From fire onward,” Wilson writes, “there is a technology behind everything we eat, whether we recognize it or not.” She adds that in general, traditional histories of technology pay little attention to food except with regard to agriculture. They look at military and industrial breakthroughs – gunpowder, ships and telegraphs. “But there is just as much invention in a nutcracker as in a bullet. Often, inventors have been working on something for military use, only to find that its best use is in the kitchen.” For instance, Percy Spencer discovered the technology that produced the microwave oven while working on naval radar systems.

For the record, a spoon amply qualifies as technology even though it has no patent and does not switch on and off. Moreover, sometimes a spoon or pot accounts for basic survival: Wilson cites skeletal evidence from about 10,000 years ago suggesting that toothless people never made it to adulthood; if they could not chew, they starved. Not until the advent of pottery could our ancestors have drinkable porridges and soups.

“The foods we eat speak of the time and place we inhabit,” Wilson observes. They have social consequences. The developed world changed when women could prepare a meal without setting fire to themselves (yet, even today, smoke chiefly from indoor cooking fires kills 1.5 million people in the developing world according to the World Health Organization). In the 1930s, the Nazis rolled out the Eintopf (“one-pot”) campaign instructing Germans to donate to the poor from money they saved by preparing one-pot dinners. In the future, wind farms may replace citrus orchards to meet energy needs, thereby pricing oranges out of the market.

Even Wilson’s revelations that at first glance may pass for trivia have major stories behind them, such as when King Louis XIII’s chief advisor Cardinal Richelieu introduced the single-edged eating knife, transforming table manners and launching a European era that scholars call the “Civilizing Process.”

Once you start reading Wilson’s widely acclaimed and deliciously entertaining “Consider the Fork,” you may notice a resemblance to potato chips – because one taste leads to another, and another, and another, and you may find it difficult to stop.

Story First Published: 2014-01-29