Just like a good dinner party, Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork: A history of how we cook and eat is entertaining, satisfying and lively.
Our kitchens are filled with ghosts. You may not see them, but you could not cook as you do without their ingenuity: those potters who first enabled us to boil and stew; the knife forgers; the brilliant engineers who designed the first refrigerators; the pioneers of gas and electric ovens; the scale makers; the inventors of egg-beaters and peelers.
Wilson’s structure is, broadly, chronological and she provides some remarkable insights into everyday objects we usually take for granted.
Before the adoption of cooking pots, around 10,000 years ago, the evidence from skeletons suggests that no one survived into adulthood having lost all their teeth. Chewing was a necessary skill. If you couldn’t chew you would starve. Pottery enabled our ancestors to make food of a drinkable consistency: porridgy, soupy concoctions, which could be eaten without chewing. For the first time we start to see adult skeletons without a single tooth. The cooking pot saved these people.
Far more than a dry history, Wilson also encourages us to see the ingenuity and even the poetry of the simplest vessels.
Pottery is deeply personal. Even now we, we describe pots as having human characteristics. Pots may have lips and mouths, necks and shoulders, bellies and bottoms.
Wilson also brings to life the sheer hard work – the grind – of cooking in a sweaty, smoky,confined space. Wilson notes that the expensive kitchens of the present speak of a degree of comfort, particularly for women, which is historically unprecedented and she does not forget to remind us that this is how millions of women around the world still experience the ‘joy’ of cooking.
The standard implement for whisking eggs, used well into the nineteenth century, was a bunch of stripped twigs (or less commonly, feathers) tied together – usually birch … egg whites for a large cake would take three hours to beat adequately.
Consider the Fork is peppered (pun intended) with fascinating facts. A quickly made wok-cooked meal was originally the product of scarce firewood. The use of spices to disguise the taste of putrid meat is a myth: spices were expensive and would not be wasted on condemned food. Instead they were used to temper the harshness of salt meat. And who knew that in 1959 some 96 per cent of US households owned fridges, as against 13 per cent for Britain.
This is a British book and, except for a discussion of Splayds – remember them? – Australia is largely ignored. Chinese cooking gets a good run though, as do many of the traditions of Europe. Wilson is often wryly amusing, as in her discussion of table manners:
Both the Americans and the British secretly find each other’s way of using a fork to be very vulgar: the British think they are polite because they never put down their knives; Americans think the are polite because they do. We are two nations divided by common tableware, as well as a common language.
I originally heard about this book when I was considering the teeth of Richard III but I found it a useful source of information about the cooking practices of Georgian England, and so directly relevant to my Elizabeth Macarthur research. It certainly didn’t hurt to be reminded that until about a hundred years ago, management of a fire was one of the principal human activities.
Full disclosure: I am no cook. The tribulations and ecstasies of sourcing and making the perfect curry holds no excitement for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love a well-made curry but my own cooking skills are more of the Vegemite toast variety. Yet I found Consider the Fork completely engaging and highly readable. Recommended!
In 1959 we (my parents) had an ice box rather than a fridge, and a delivery man would bring round blocks of ice. In the same year, my grandparents on a farm in the Mallee, didn’t yet have electricity and stored their good in a cool safe, a compartment with hessian sides which could be kept damp and so cool through evaporation.
Yes, I’d be interested to see the Australian figures for refrigerators, to compare with the British and US ones mentioned by Wilson. I suspect that, given our climate, it would fall somewhere between. With more in the cities than in rural areas, of course.