Consider the Fork

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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