Consider the Fork
by Bee Wilson
2012 • 352 pages • Basic Books
After a year of negotiating shared kitchens, I’m excited by the prospect of stocking my own (incredibly tiny) kitchen from scratch. My own tiny little French press for my coffee; a blender that does not wimp out; and an entire half of a freezer to myself. Simple things, really. I don’t think of myself as a particularly technical cook. I occasionally just ignore calls for more advanced equipment and do my own thing, even (and often) when I’m making medieval recipes. But even what I consider the dead basics—French press; blender; freezer—are pretty advanced, especially in the context of what constituted cooking for the bulk of human history.
Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork opens in much the same fashion, asking us to consider the common wooden spoon as technology that has been developed and improved over centuries. Cooking has long walked a delicate line between conservatism—people unwilling to deviate from tradition—and fads—people rushing to buy the latest thing that promises less time in the kitchen. But it seems odd to consider such basics, like utensils, the kitchen, and available heat sources, as massive leaps in technology. But they absolutely are. As Wilson points out, if you spend all day tending the fire, you’re not going to want to bring water near it if you don’t know that boiling water is useful for cooking.
Consider the Fork is full of little observations like this, in a remarkably orderly fashion. Wilson’s writing style is just as engaging and accessible when she’s talking about wacky kitchen gadget trends (egg beaters were apparently a massive thing back in the 1800s) as it is when she’s reporting from the sides of food historians like Ivan Day, who roasts meat the traditional medieval way. Between sections, Wilson includes notes on specific gadgets, instead of larger trends, although these are a lot fluffier than the meat of the book. And she’s certainly not afraid to include herself, talking about her own kitchen and experiences with cooking gadgetry without ever coming across as too cuddly. (Is this because Wilson is British? It might be because Wilson is British.)
Ultimately, what you end up with is a brief but fascinating cultural history of cooking. It seems obvious that a culture influences the method of cooking, but it took Wilson laying that out gently for me for me to get it. Chinese and French cooking (the two great cooking traditions of human history, according to Wilson) are different for quite logical reasons—fuel was scarce in developing China, leading to the necessity of a wok, where food is cooked very quickly, while France had access to more fuel, allowing for the decadent roasting times of meat for medieval feasts. And methods of cooking influence us as well. Wilson lays out some compelling evidence for the theory that eating with utensils led to the development of underbites in human teeth, as the more familiar fact that difficult food items to make are usually the snacks of rich folks. When food couldn’t be processed beyond belief, food ground almost to a paste was valued; now, when food can be processed beyond belief, it’s considered lower class and in poor taste.
I only wish that Consider the Fork was more in-depth, although it’s quite detailed for so broad an overview of the history of cooking. I’d love to know more about how various cuisines are inspired by limited access to resources, for instance. But that’s the sign of a fantastic nonfiction book; it gets you so interested in the subject that you feel compelled to seek it out. (I mean, food history as cultural history is hardly a hard sell for me, but you get what I mean.) And it could benefit from having a political point of view. Late in the book, Wilson bemoans the fact that devotees of molecular gastronomy have written cookbooks scoffing at traditional cooking as represented by their mothers’ cooking. There’s often a divide between women’s cooking (cooking to feed a family) and men’s cooking (cooking as profession) that has undoubtedly influenced kitchen and cooking technology over the years, but Wilson is largely uninterested in examining the larger implications of this.
This book was made available to me for publicity purposes.