Nonfiction Review: “Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat” by Bee Wilson

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I made pizza from scratch this weekend. But as plastic cups—one, one-half, one-third, a tablespoon, a teaspoon it really doesn’t make any sense to do it this way, I informed my boyfriend, leveling two cups of flour into a mixing bowl, since what’s a cup anyway? The rest of the world goes by weight, which makes a lot of sense, given that a cup of flour loosely packed can be four ounces and a cup of flour tightly packed is one and a half times that. In our defense, I continued, cups are more convenient than scales, or at least, were seen as such by the top American kitchen minds of mid-1800s. Not to mention—unlike cooking by ratio or instinct—the cup system provides a sense of absolute reproducability, which was certainly part of the reason the Boston Cooking School’s Fannie Farmer was such an advocate of them in 1896. By the time we got to the sauce, I’d covered relative merits of different materials for pots (there is no perfect pot material, if you were curious) and was launching into a discussion of the shockingly late introduction of the modern two-wheeled can opener in the 1980s.

This is what happens when you read Bee Wilson: the world becomes enchanted, and you become insufferable.

Which is not to say that “Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat” is simply a compendium of food facts (although certainly, there are enough tidbits to entertain and alienate a lifetime of dining companions—how nice to meet you, and do you know the history of these throwaway restaurant chopsticks?). Tackling one culinary phenomenon at a time—Pots and Pans, Knife, Fire, Measure, Grind, Eat, Ice, and Kitchen—Wilson uses the evolution of how we eat to chart the history of how we live.

In considering pots, for example, which she traces from geothermal springs (“like having a samovar the size of a lake in your backyard”) to stone-lined pit ovens, ceramic vessels, iron cauldrons, on through the rise of enameled cast iron (our beloved Le Creuset) and teflon-lined non-stick frying pans, she’s also considering the entire history of agriculture, of economics, and of changing tastes. To the amateur, if not necessarily savvy cook (me), boiling food in a pot seems like one of the most basic methods of food preparation. Except that it isn’t, not exactly: boiling, Wilson points out, isn’t particularly intuitive—unlike fire, boiling water isn’t found in nature much. But once it came into practice, boiling changed almost everything. Vegetables that were previously toxic became edible. Grains like wheat, maize and rice could be made into porridges—you can’t make a porridge without a pot—and suddenly starches became the staple of the human diet. It’s not a coincidence that agriculture developed in tandem with the pot.

Nor is it a coincidence that the way we conceptualize the kitchen corresponds to evolving social structures. Kitchens as we know them today—rooms designated for cooking, to be done by the same people who will do the eating—are a twentieth-century phenomenon. They weren’t (and generally aren’t) the “squalid one-room kitchen/living rooms of the preindustrial masses,” but they also weren’t the servant-run affairs of privileged Victorians. Middle-class kitchens were designed for the people who used them, and the people who used them were, and still often are, primarily women. Kitchen design isn’t just about class, though it is about class—it’s also about gender. The “ideal kitchen,” with an ever-changing roster of new, time-saving devices and organizational methods, was intended to give women more time to spend outside of the kitchen. Except that the promise of the ideal kitchen also becomes, as Wilson puts it, “compensation for a life of drudgery”—endless, and not necessarily elective unpaid work.

That this is true isn’t surprising—of course evolving technologies change the way we eat, of course the way we produce food helps shape (and is shaped by) systems of class, race and gender. What’s fascinating is the way that it’s true.

And Wilson is the ideal guide. Her scholarship is substantive, nerdy, detailed enough that you could conceivably be forgiven for occasional skimming, depending on, say, your particular passion for the evolution of the Winchester bushel as a primary unit of measure. Which is not to say that “Consider the Fork” is a comprehensive study (nor should it be). It’s less a thesis than a survey, a collection of threads tied together by a common inquiry, if not a single argument. There’s certainly nothing definitive about it—as Wilson meanders through culinary history, she raises as many questions as she answers. That’s precisely the pleasure of reading her. (Rachel Sugar)

“Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat”
Bee Wilson
Basic Books, 352 pages, $26.99 

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