Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson (to be published October 2012 by Basic Books) captures not just culinary history but cultural history, describing the foods eaten throughout history based on the tools available to prepare them.

As a history of cooking, it left me grateful to live in an era with such an abundance of options for eating an cooking. We live in a culture unlike any other in the history of the world in terms of the varieties of foods and spices from around the world that we have available to us: consider fresh fruit and vegetables,which the majority of the population in Eastern Europe did not have access to until only recent decades, for example.  Further, tasks that for tens of thousands of years were labor intensive are now done with ease: consider the difficulty that comes from grinding flour or making pestos. We cook things from scratch because we want to, not out of a need to eat (or, as was more often the case, because it was one’s job as a servant). The technology we have before us has created a food culture (Note to self: ah, I now see a context for the obesity epidemic!)

Consider the Fork has chapters with the following titles:

  1. Pots and Pans
  2. Knife
  3. Fire
  4. Measure
  5. Grind
  6. Eat
  7. Ice
  8. Kitchen

These chapters, although a framework for discussing the cultural history of food and the technology necessary to prepare it, seemed to overlap in places. But this is to be expected, because one cannot separate some of the concepts. Truly, pots and pans were fundamental to food as we know it now, something I had not before considered in depth. How odd it was that someone did think, for the first time, “Let me put this food in water and bring it to a boil. Maybe it will taste better that way.” Recognizing the potential was probably mind-boggling at the time. Ms Wilson’s later chapters, in which she discussed the “modern cooking” phenomena such as sous-vide, showed me how cooking is still changing. Just as I find sous-vide cooking odd and unusual, early humans may have found boiling in a pot an odd way of approaching food.

Further, Ms Wilson’s discussions of knives and other silverware were likewise life-changing. Did you know humans have an overbite because we train our mouths to eat with cut food via a knife? Did you know that forks only became in common practice in the last few hundred years?

And then the development of some modern technology. Oddly enough, although people prepared ice creams hundreds of years ago, no refrigerators were created until the last 100 years. Further, America is set on measuring with cups and tablespoons, when weight measures would be much more accurate: add to this fact the basic fact that for 10,000 years no one measured anything, and really, our obsession with measuring cups seems rather ridiculous. Even the development of a satisfactory potato peeler (the OXO) was far delayed. Seriously, there was no potato peeler that wasn’t painful until 1994?!

I cannot begin to cover all the aspects of Consider the Fork that interested me. If you are interested in cultural history, culinary history, or cooking technology at all, I’d highly recommend it. It’s fascinating!

I’ll leave you with this through from Ms Wilson.

In the most highly designed modern kitchen, we are still drawing on the tools and techniques of the past. … Are kitchens are filled with ghosts. you may not see the, but you could not cook as you do without their ingenuity: the potters who first enabled us to boil and stew; the knife forgers; the resourceful engineers who designed the first refrigerators; the pioneers of gas and electric ovens …. The food we cook is not only an assemblage of ingredients. It is the product of technologies, past and present. (emphasis added1

I finished reading Consider the Fork wanting to go try something new in the kitchen to make sure the art of cooking isn’t completely lost! I’m blessed with many options, and I can do it for fun. Although I knew some of the trivia in the book, in general, it was eye-opening to see just how superficial some of the things cooks-in-training worry about. Given food and the technologies I’m blessed with in my kitchen, I can make anything!

Note: I read a digital copy from the publisher via netgalley.com for review consideration.

  1. text is from an advanced copy. Text in final printing of book may differ.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. This sounds EXACTLY like my kind of book — I love social history, especially anything about food. Must find this book!

  2. This sounds amazing, Rebecca!

    Several years ago, I read (& GREATLY enjoyed) Much Depends on Dinner: The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allures & Obsessions, Perils & Taboos of an Ordinary Meal by Margaret Visser. It chronicled the source and social history of the foods in a ‘basic’ dinner: chicken, rice, lemon, butter and so on.

    It was fascinating, as Consider the Fork sounds as well. I MUST add this to my TBR list. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

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