Thursday, July 28, 2016

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat


The can opener was invented 50 years after canning was patented. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, knives were individualized to each owner as specifically as wands in Harry Potter, and didn’t become part of standard tableware until the 17th century. Modern salted butter is 1 to 2 % salt; in 1305 AD, it was 10% salt for the purposes of preservation. In Western Europe, the overbite only developed recently—toward the late 18th century—due to the utensils we came to use everyday. In Asia, the overbite was around for centuries because of the use of chopsticks.

This is just a smattering of facts that are detailed in Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson. Its thirteen-page bibliography is a testament to the meticulous research that went into writing this book. Broken down into basic elements of the kitchen, each chapter covers the gradual evolution of life in the kitchens. From the humble wooden spoon to the types of metal used for pots and pans, Wilson provides a fascinating history of cooking. With examples from around the globe, we learn how hearths were incorporated into the home, and eventually, the multi-room structure of aristocratic kitchens, with wet and dry pantries, game larders, sculleries, dairy rooms, bakehouses, and rooms for smoking meats, salting, and pastries. Sounds labyrinthine and the perfect setting for a novel!

The number of inspirational examples that begged to be included in fiction were plentiful. A two-tiered steamer made of Corinthian brass called an authepsa sold at an auction in ancient Rome for the same amount of money that could have bought a farm, according to Cicero. Cauldrons were so enormous and important as private property that they were passed down in wills. The Celts believed cauldrons to be a source of eternal abundance and knowledge, and an empty one symbolized absolute misery.


As a resource for writing about food, Consider the Fork is wonderful. Whether it’s for historical fiction, or building a world for an epic fantasy, this book offers insight into how culture and culinary life grew around the kitchen. Each chapter gives a long view—from ancient history to modern technology, and the idea that a fridge may someday be able to sort your food for you so that things that are about to expire are placed up front—shows how we adapted all the tools to meet our needs over centuries. The author demonstrates the sometimes-healthy, sometimes-silly skepticism that came with each new wave of technological development. Refrigerators were cause for concern because butchers could sell outdated meat. Currently, it’s the sous-vide. Another trendy device to take up counter space, or truly a wonder that refines taste and texture in the best way? It’s fascinating to read a history of everyday objects so many people take for granted. One thing is for sure—whenever I write about cooking in my novels, I’ll remember many details from this book, and the kitchens will be all that much warmer and fragrant. 

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