Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson

Consider the Fork is a very entertaining look at the history of the equipment with which we have cooked and served food. I realise that, on the face of it, not everyone will be jumping up and down with excitement about this topic, but you would be rather mistaken to think this a dry survey. As anyone familiar with Bee Wilson’s food column in The Sunday Telegraph knows, she is an engaging writer. The book skips along taking in a whole range of objects that help make the food on our plates more tasty and appealing.

Consider the Fork: A History of Invention in the KitchenThe book is divided up into eight sections, each one discussing a particular type of kitchen technology, be it pots and pans, knives, ice or fire. Wilson examines the influences on the development of gadgets and styles of cooking. As in so many other areas of everyday life, some inventions are the by-products of military research. Other changes have been stimulated by sweeping social changes. During the middle ages it was usual to carry one’s own knife for use at the table. By the eighteenth century table knives were ready laid, had virtually no cutting edge, and were accompanied by a fork. Table manners were one part of the ‘civilising process’, affecting manners and behaviours across Europe.

How and what we eat varies across the world; the utensils vary accordingly. In China, food preparation requires a very sharp cleaver-style knife, called a tou. The tou is vital to Chinese cookery, chopping all the ingredients into bite-sized pieces before they are cooked. The finished dish is eaten with chopsticks, no more cutting required. The labour is the chef’s, not the diner’s. The concept of labour runs through the book. When labour was cheap and expendable one’s status could be demonstrated by having one’s minions roast huge hunks of meat on infernal spits. Or whisk up elaborate, time-consuming, labour-intensive desserts. There’s very little need for labour-saving devices if it’s not your labour sweating it out down in the kitchens. As servants became more expensive and, shockingly, started to question their employment conditions, quicker and easier methods of cooking developed.

I love this idea of the progress of kitchen utensils; especially as often no actual progress is made. One example Wilson gives tickled me. Beating eggs and cream is a laborious business, but necessary to make the lightest and most showy deserts. New-fangled whisks were developed, designed to make the job less likely to end up giving you cramp in the arm. All gadgety and showy, these devices weren’t actually labour-saving at all; some were more work than the time-honoured method of using two forks. But, their impressive looks and slick sales pitch gave the illusion of a great leap forward. Wilson has many examples of gadgets that promise much, but end up as yet more clutter on the kitchen worktop. A quick scout around most kitchens turns up at least one such device. Ice-cream makers, juicers, even breadmakers – one person’s favourite appliance is another’s one-hit wonder.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It can be read straight through, or the individual chapters can be dipped into one at a time. It got me thinking about my favourite kitchen tool. On balance, I think it must be my large and medium pans. Stainless steel, from Costco thirteen years ago for very little money, they are nothing fancy. But, after more than a decade of being called into service constantly they still do exactly what they are designed for, and clean up easily without the benefit of a dishwasher. Functional, hard-wearing, reliable. What more could I ask of a pan?

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