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Consider The Fork

A History of How We Cook and Eat

Bee Wilson

(London Times)

There is as much invention in a nutcracker, argues this sparkling history of kitchen devices, as in a bullet. And just as much invention in oven timers, tin-openers, fridges, forks and all the humble implements to which we rarely give a second thought - beyond, perhaps, the dazzled moment when we consider replacing the milk pan with a cappuccino frother. Yet the tools that surround us in the kitchen have all been shaped by human inventiveness. In turn, they have shaped our lives (and even, it seems, our bodies).

For a start, we don't die now from catching our sleeves in open fires, as women, in terrifying numbers, once did. When Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, invented the closed range in the late 18th century, he saved innumerable lives. Ovens transformed lives, too. Gone were the young turnspits condemned to swelter half-naked by the fire, keeping the joint rotating. Gone were the unfortunate dogs working treadmills to the same end. (Gone, too, were the geese: in a delightful aside Bee Wilson notes that a good treadmill goose could keep a joint spinning for up to 12 hours) Gone, unfortunately, though, was the real ­flavour of a spit-roasted joint. Our ancestors would not recognise our roast beef as roasted at all, but a dish part-baked, part-grilled and part-stewed in its own fat. Once you've tried the real thing (and, of course, as a good food journalist, Wilson has), you realise that the English national dish as we oven cook it today is a pallid impostor.

At least we can time our joints right. Galileo used a thermometer, but it wasn't until 1915, astonishingly, that a gas oven could be bought with an integrated thermostat. Before then, cooks had to rely on their own inventiveness. Wilson digs out some lovely examples. A medieval recipe suggests chanting a Miserere to gauge the correct time to boil walnuts, while 19th-century French cooks put paper or flour in the bottom of the oven to watch what colour it turned. Dark brown, wrote Jules Gouffe, the chef at the Jockey Club de Paris in the 1860s, was good for vols-au-vent; light yellow was right for meringues.

After the oven, the other truly transformative invention was refrigeration. The use of ice is remarkably ancient (snow was sold in Athens from the fifth-century BC), but efficient fridges were developed only after the first world war. Their impact was profound: you can't do a weekly shop if you can't keep groceries cool. No fridges: no supermarkets.

Tins had their limitations - and teething troubles. Perhaps the most delicious of the host of titbits Wilson serves up is that the tin-opener was invented in 1855, almost 40 years after the tin. So if you wanted to open a can of bully beef or peaches in the 1840s you followed the instruction to 'cut around the top near the outer edge with a chisel and hammer'.

As for that fork, it turns out to be well worth the consideration. First adopted by pasta-loving Renaissance Italians, it spread throughout Europe in the 17th century, when eating dirty-fingered began to be seen as uncouth. Why this attitude developed, frustratingly, Wilson does not say, but she does repeat an irresistible fork-related theory. Our ancestors' teeth apparently met edge to edge so their incisors could grip meat for tearing. But as forks, and the prissy table knives that went with them, forced us to serve up soft foods, our lower jaws receded, for want of exercise. Orthodontists now consider an overbite normal.

A greater (and less contested) bodily change is that we are no longer ­crippled with arthritis from endless pounding and grinding. We imagine women in far-off countries singing happily as they thump away communally at their grains, Wilson argues, but if they ever sang it was because it was the only way to stop their mouths from screaming with boredom at their task - and with the relentless pain of it.

Wilson admires innovation and clearly loves a good gadget (she even has a sous-vide cooker - but then she is a former Masterchef semi-finalist). She concludes, however, as much in praise of tradition as of innovation. Our kitchens are filled with ghosts, she says, not just those of the implement innovators and pioneers, but of the ancestors who used their inventions - or might have longed for them. With this fascinating and entertaining book, she lets us see those ghosts more clearly. In considering the fork, in short, she forces us to reconsider ourselves.


'Which comes first, the stir-fry or the wok?' It may sound like a bad joke, but the answer holds the key to one of the world's great cuisines. Bee Wilson's supple, sometimes playful style in Consider the Fork, a history of the tools and techniques humans have invented to feed themselves, 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.

Wilson, an award-winning British food journalist and historian who contributes the Kitchen Thinker column to The Sunday Telegraph, is also, incidentally, the daughter of the biographer and novelist A. N. Wilson. 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.

So, which does come first, the stir-fry or the wok? Wilson's answer is, 'Neither.' To solve the riddle, we have to take a step back and contemplate cooking fuel: firewood was scarce, and with a wok you could cook more quickly after chopping food into bite-size morsels with a tou, or Chinese cleaver. Chopsticks were also part of this 'symbiosis.'

The Japanese (who adopted chopsticks from the Chinese) had a different problem. Because of Shinto taboos about contamination, they would no more eat with a stranger's chopsticks, even if washed, than they would borrow his underwear. Therefore, at the beginning of the 18th century, they invented waribashi, those disposable chopsticks, joined at the top, you see today in so many Asian restaurants. Unfortunately, waribashi precipitated an ecological disaster. The Japanese use and discard 23 billion pairs a year, which is bad enough, but the Chinese have now taken up the custom and produce 63 billion pairs annually. This vast consumption has resulted in a shortage of appropriate wood in China akin, at least spiritually, to the one that originally gave rise to the invention of chopsticks thousands of years ago. (In the ultimate irony, China, Japan and Korea now import chopsticks from a manufacturing plant in Georgia, stamped Made in U.S.A.)

The British, on the other hand, with their abundance of firewood, went in for enormous haunches of beef spit-roasted in front of a roaring hearth. And spit-roasting entailed a universe of now defunct technologies like gravity jacks, which replaced child- or canine-powered turnspits. (There was even a dog of that name with short legs and a long body, specially bred, as Wilson puts it, to 'trundle around' in a large wheel connected to the spit with a pulley.) Medieval Britons consumed the final product by clamping the meat between their incisors and tugging or cutting off the hunk that remained in their mouths with the sharp personal eating knife they carried at all times. By the 18th century, they had adopted the fork, and in changing their table manners also changed their physiognomy. Wilson cites the provocative theories of the aptly named anthropologist Charles Loring Brace to show that the overbite we consider a normal part of our anatomy is only about 200 to 250 years old. If we still used the inelegant technique Brace termed the 'stuff-and-cut,' we would have an 'edge-to-edge' bite like that of chimpanzees. The fossil record shows that the Chinese, who have been cutting up their food very small for centuries, developed an overbite 800 to 1,000 years earlier than Europeans.

And then there's the spork, a combination of spoon and fork in name as well as shape, which has developed a fond if tongue-in-cheek following in the past several decades. During his second year in office, Bill Clinton called it 'the symbol of my presidency' during a humorous speech delivered at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Dinner in Washington. 'No more false choice between the left utensil and the right utensil,' he joked.

That uber-utensil, the food processor, has gone far beyond replacing the mortar and pestle to play a huge role in our diets, almost certainly contributing to the current obesity epidemic. Studies cited by Wilson show that by reducing the need to chew our food, processors eliminate some of the work it takes our body to digest it. Although the calories on paper may be identical, the body receives more energy (translating into pounds) from 100 calories of processed food than from 100 calories of whole food.

Because many of us don't cook with any regularity, contemporary designers have chosen to organize the kitchen around the hard, chilly lines of the refrigerator rather than the warmth of the stove, traditional symbol of the hearth. 'When we can't think what else to do, we open the fridge door and stare into it long and hard as if it will provide the answer to life's great questions,' Wilson trenchantly observes. Samsung has even released a 'smart fridge,' but despite its Wi-Fi, weather reports and Twitter feeds, I prefer to get my intelligence from a much more congenial kitchen oracle, Bee Wilson.

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