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Consider the Fork

Bee Wilson outlines the history of kitchen technologies with wit and skill.

By Staff writer / January 29, 2013

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat By Bee Wilson Basic Books 352 pp.

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Today’s home kitchens gleam with sub-zero chrome refrigerators, store ice cream and pastamakers behind cabinet doors, and display at least three kinds of appliances that purée or brew. Yet it is safe to surmise that even the best appointed also has at least one humble wooden spoon.

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There is nothing fancy about a wooden spoon – no flashing lights or neon colors. And yet, as kitchen gadget fads come and go, nothing seems to replace the feel of a smooth wooden handle nestled in the palm stirring over a stovetop. Why is that?

Bee Wilson in her book, Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, strives to answer this and other kitchen curiosities by tracing the evolution of kitchen technologies and the cultural influences that shaped them. “The foods we eat speak of the time and the place we inhabit,” writes Wilson. “But to an even greater extent, so do the tools we use to make and consume them.” 

As glossy-paged cookbooks, online recipe sites, and razzle-dazzle cooking shows continue to feed imaginations hungry for mouthwatering dishes, Wilson turns her attention beyond the what (ingredients) to the how – to the actual tools that slice and dice and eventually lift food to our mouths.

Wilson is an award-winning British food writer who skillfully turns a potentially dull subject into one of wit and wisdom. Nor does she lose touch with the human element that has drawn so many into the world of cooking and the universal subject of food. After all, a knife is only as good as the cook who wields it.

In many ways, culinary history parallels advances in technology. The microwave oven, which stormed on the scene in the 1950s only to arouse suspicion by cooks everywhere (Julia Child refused to own one), was not the discovery of a tinkering chef but a military engineer by the name of Percy Spencer working for the Raytheon Company and trying improve the magnetron, a vacuum tube for generating microwaves. Myths abound as to how Spencer actually realized that microwaves were also useful for heating food, but nonetheless it was an impressive leap of imagination, Wilson writes, to think “this vast metal cylinder, could be used not in the field of war but in a kitchen.”

Tools for cooking and eating were not only influenced by whatever new technology was being mastered on the battlefield, but also by constantly shifting cultural values. And Wilson packs “Consider the Fork” with as many bits of cultural history trivia as an overstuffed utensil drawer.

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