Serious Reads: Consider the Fork, by Bee Wilson
While preparing the half-dozen side dishes and desserts I was commissioned to make for my family Thanksgiving, I used the following implements: whisk, knife, cutting board, 2-quart saucepan, 3-quart saucepan, baking sheet, spatula (rubber and metal), three casseroles, measuring cups, teaspoon, far too many forks, and a wooden spoon. And all that while making a concerted effort to eyeball measurements and reduce the frenzy and mess inevitable when I'm tasked with too many cooking projects. I am very thankful that my family's kitchen is well-stocked with multiples of each of the listed tools and more. And that I have a whole afternoon to clean before everyone comes home from work.
Given my heavy use of kitchen equipment, it seemed an appropriate day to read Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, by Bee Wilson. Wilson, a prolific food writer, looks at the development of cooking techniques and implements around the world. She traces these devices through centuries of recorded history and up to the modern day.
Each chapter is themed around a specific cooking need: "Pots and Pans," "Measure," "Fire," "Ice," and so on. Within those topics, Wilson discusses how ancient civilizations used early adaptations of now commonplace technologies. The first bowls and pots were, unsurprisingly, hollowed-out gourds and plants. When bronze and other metals came along, vessels were made out of more permanent and valuable materials. Not much has changed in the basic construction of a pot, but the durability and conductivity of various materials has been studied closely to create the best cooking device.
Some kitchen questions remain lively debates, such as: what is the most effective type of heat for cooking? Throughout history we've used coal, wood, gas, and oil in efforts to find an effective and safe heat source. Cooks still take sides on which medium cooks most evenly and cleanly. (I think I'd choose gas, but there's nothing quite like the smell of a wood stove...)
I found Wilson's chapters on eating implements—forks, spoons, knives, chopsticks, etc.—quite interesting. There were significant changes in public opinion about these implements throughout history, for instance, in the 1600s, a man would never have eaten from a fork. But by the 1800s, forks were universal in European culture. Wilson also explores the development of the complicated rules about how to use chopsticks. She observes that while not every culture uses forks or knives, "all the peoples of the world use spoons," a truism that provides interesting reflection on human character and culture.
Consider the Fork doesn't delve too deeply into specific cultures or traditions of cooking—her lens is too broad to focus on small details. But the book provides an interesting perspective on the dozens of implements now considered commonplace in most well-stocked American kitchens. Especially during Thanksgiving week, when a broken stand mixer or Cuisinart on the fritz can create a tizzy of stress, it's wise to reflect on the centuries of technological innovation that allowed us to stock our dirty kitchens in the first place.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work has also been featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.