Consider the Fork
Bee Wilson outlines the history of kitchen technologies with wit and skill.
(Page 2 of 2)
For instance, 17th-century Europeans started to pre-lay the dinner table with blunted knives after an adviser to King Louis XIII of France was disgusted by the sight of a dinner guest using the sharp tip of a double-edged knife to pick his teeth. Cultural upheaval ensued. New standards of table manners were introduced, and the table knife was reduced to the task of spreading butter. The fashionably subdued role of the knife thus brought the arrival of a new-fangled implement to spear food on a plate: the fork.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The fork eventually morphed into the spork in 1909, a handy packed lunch and fast food convenience part spoon, part fork that didn’t get patented until 1970. Similarly, the history of chopsticks is presented as a guide to understanding frugality, restraint, and mealtime etiquette across China and Japan.
“Consider the Fork” studies a wide swath of kitchen tools, in fact, from ice, fire, and grinders to molds, measuring cups, and more. Techniques are dissected and explained. Wilson becomes a sleuth at her own stove, unraveling the mystery of over-boiled vegetables that have been the bane of generations of British children. The reason: a flawed Victorian boiling technique introduced to save fuel. A pot on slow simmer may have been more fuel-efficient than one with a galloping boil, but it resulted in soggy carrots.
“No technology has yet supplanted the measuring capabilities for a good cook, blessed with a sharp nose, keen eyes, asbestos hands, and many years at a hot stove,” Wilson writes.
And yet, Wilson reminds readers, even as technology advances into all corners of the kitchen, no manner of improvements to cooking tools promises protection from failures. Cooking has always been an imperfect science. The necessary forgiveness for those who attempt it extends to its instruments.
“The ideal pan – like the ideal home – does not exist. Never mind. Pots have never been perfect, nor do they need to be. They are not just devices for boiling and sautéing, frying and stewing. They are part of the family. We get to know their foibles and their moods. We muddle through, juggling our good pots and out not-so-good ones. And in the end, supper arrives on the table; and we eat.”
Perhaps this explains why wooden spoons have endured throughout the ages. As we assemble ingredients and heat them with fire we like to keep the familiar close. And no humble wooden spoon would ever speak back to the cook.
- Kendra Nordin edits the Monitor's "Stir It Up!" cooking blog.