Lots of people don’t cook. Of the ones who choose not to do so, I’d wager a good many have access to a kitchen or a toaster oven. I have never understood this — even recognizing that, for some, food is merely fuel. Yet heat applied to that fuel in its raw state can be gloriously transformative. Fast, or slow and automatically. We live in an age of high-performance appliances and utensils, delivered groceries. Has convenience become too . . . convenient?
If only they knew about the technical advancement of, say, the rotisserie, perhaps those folks would appreciate their place in the culinary continuum. The medieval English, in spite of their civility, used 5-year-old orphans to turn spit-roasted hunks of beef over open flames. After that, spits were rigged to wheel-like wooden treadmills mounted on the wall, powered by walking dogs caged inside. (Illustrations are worth Googling.) Dog wheels made their way across the pond and were used in American restaurant kitchens into the 1800s.
This is the stuff of “Consider the Fork,” British food writer Bee Wilson’s ambitious, blenderized treatise. The path from Stone Age flints to sous-vide machines whirs so smoothly that I found myself re-reading passages just to trace how the author managed to work in a Victorian copper batterie de cuisine along the way.
A full five chapters before the fork is considered, there are entire “Jeopardy!” categories of factoids to digest. A sampler:
●The broiler oven commonly called a salamander got its name from the 19th-century open-fire utensil named for a mythical dragon that could withstand great heat.
●The United States is one of only three countries, along with Myanmar and Liberia, that has not adopted a culinary metric system.
■The French statesman Cardinal Richelieu was responsible for bringing dull-edged knives to the dining table.
●By 1977, more food processors per capita were in use in the Middle East than anywhere else in the world.
●“Moreish” is an adjective (that food writers don’t use often enough).
If Wilson can be faulted in this work, it might be for a soupcon of anti-American bias. Our refusal to eschew Fannie Farmer’s recipe measures in level spoons and cups shows how stubborn we are, she suggests, how set in our ways. We, or rather Tiffany, invented a serving spoon for potato chips, for heaven’s sake. Our very way of life was made possible “by refrigeration.”
Another quibble: The 19th century accounts for a considerable amount of “Consider the Fork’s” revelations. Is that because the era inspired so much culinary innovation or because the authorhistorian was able to tap into such extensive resources?
Wilson is at her most convincing when she speaks for home cooks, spot-on when she declares that it’s pointless to search for the perfect pan. Her preference for the functionality of a stick blender over the countertop model rings true. Having grown up using a subpar vegetable peeler, she unabashedly admires the ergonomic OXO model introduced in 1990.
Once the fork is properly introduced in the book, reasons for its top billing become clear. Selecting the right one in Victorian times meant you knew the rules of the game, Wilson says. There have been special forks for sardines, sweetmeats and even ice cream; well, actually the latter was more of a spork. Yet the eating utensil we take for granted today was rejected or scorned outright for hundreds of years — with the exception of the Italians, who twirled pasta around tines and speared meat on the plate as it was cut.
The use of forks was deemed crude by Queen Elizabeth I, ineffective by the 17th-century British poet Nicholas Breton and effeminate by his country’s sailors as late as 1897. Nonetheless, forks were catching on in European countries beyond the Boot. They became instruments of refinement, manners and culture. The author breaks it down thusly:
“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 they are polite because they do. We are two nations separated by common tableware, as well as by a common language.”
Fittingly, kitchens are the subject of the final chapter. Their design, often dictated by trends that last but a few decades, might lie at the heart of why people don’t cook. Above all, a kitchen ought to be comfortable — as ergonomic as that OXO peeler. And, Wilson says, they come alive only when you cook in them.
CONSIDER THE FORK
A History of How We Cook and Eat
By Bee Wilson
Basic. 327 pp. $26.99