Wilson, Bee (2012) Consider the Fork: a History of How We Cook and Eat, Basic Books: New York.
This fascinating book traces the history of cooking technology from prehistoric to contemporary times. The author shows that “technology” is far more than the highly sophisticated pieces of electronic equipment that we call that way: it is the very human effort to construct objects and devices to make our life easier and more comfortable. Through the observation of changes in tools we can understand changes in societies and cultures, and we have access to different meanings attached to food preparation and consumption through time and geography (for example, the appearance of labour saving devices in Europe goes hand in hand with the disappearance of servants; forks, knives and spoons tell us about construction of individualized bodies, body management and table manners).
The book starts by asking which technology lies behind what we eat: making a simple omelette for breakfast is possible only thanks to the abundant technology that humans have built around food and that we often take for granted. Although a multitude of new objects are now available to us, the most fundamental inventions in human history (pots, knives, grinders and so on) are still there for us as our common cooking landscape: our kitchens are filled with the ghosts of past inventions and innovations that not only allow us to prepare delicious food, but testify social and cultural change through time, our changing attitude towards danger and risks, the different roles of women and servants, economic and family structures and so on.
The eight chapter of the books are divided into thematic sections: ‘Pots and Pans’, ‘Knife’, ‘Fire’, ‘Measure’, ‘Grind’, ‘Eat’, ‘Ice’, ‘Kitchen’. The fascinating chapter on pots and pans, for example, traces the history of cooking vessels showing that boiling, one of the most prosaic human cooking activity, has actually been a real adventure for humans. From the usage of mussel shells and turtles to animal stomachs, from the invention of pottery to experiments with metallurgy, the use of pots allowed cooking to become a refined and subtle business for the first time. Most cooks from the Bronze Age had to make food with one single-pot, the cauldron: its content was usually repetitive, (mostly soups) and did not allow for much subtlety in cooking experiments. The cauldron was at the centre of human domestic landscape, hanging on the fire or standing on a three-legged stand, constantly repaired, and not always properly cleaned: we can understand the centrality of the cauldron in societies by looking at its constant presence in folklore stories, in magic rituals, in paintings and drawings
In antiquity the Romans (who were the inventors of the patella) had a variety of pans and pots for different uses, but with the fall of the empire cooking tools went back to basic. In the XVII-XVIII Century the batterie de cuisine in European aristocratic houses multiplied in an extraordinary multitude of objects, with the urge to give every ingredient its own specific vessel.
Through time, many scientists and inventors tried do design the “perfect pot”, experimenting and using different materials: copper, glass, silver, cast-iron coated in a vitreous enamel glaze, Pyrex, Teflon. Each material has it pros and cons, and each has been first welcomed as revolutionary before it became “business as usual”. The author, having traced the different uses of a multitude of materials talks about the constant search for the “perfect pot”:
“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 sauteing, 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 our not-so-good ones. And in the end, supper arrives on the table; and we eat.”
The chapter on fire traces the history of ovens and roasting techniques, beginning with the reflection that in our world fire has been progressively closed off and we do not have anymore the desires and the resources to cook on an open fire (unless we are in very specific circumstances, like camping). In modern kitchens fire has been tamed and boxed off and we forget that it exist at all, but the relationship with fire (lighting it, maintaining it, guarding it), its smokes and its dangers has been central to people’s daily activity, and still is in different parts of the world, sometimes with negative consequences on human health and environmental pollution.
The interesting chapter on grinding techniques (from the mortar and pestle to the Vorwerk Thermomix) ends with a thought-provoking question. Thanks to gas, to electricity, to modern kitchen architecture and sophisticated electronic appliances many people now spend less time and effort in the provision and preparation of food. Have these machines really saved us from labour? The author says that it is maybe only an illusion: alone, in our kitchen, we might feel entirely emancipated, because all we see is a pile of ingredients and a machine ready for us. Maybe we have only externalized, and not put to an end, that labour that until recently was part of daily cooking activity, with its toil, hardship and fatigue. That human labour has not disappeared, although we may not see it and we do think about it: the labour of invisible hands that work in the vegetable and fruit fields, in the meat factories and fish industries, the labour of the workers who assemble our modern kitchen robots in developing countries.
This great book is though provoking, well informed, and a pleasure to read. EA