[14 November 2012]
Imagine yourself in your kitchen, preparing lunch. You decide on an omelette. You reach into the fridge for the eggs and butter (yes, this is an American kitchen, where we paranoids refrigerate the eggs), then fetch a small bowl, a knife and fork, and finally, a skillet, which you plunk on the stove. Turn the burner to medium heat, then take up your knife and slice what many food writers dub a “walnut-sized lump” of butter. Toss this into your pan. Now, your eggs. Crack them into the bowl, whisk with either a fork or that eponymously named item, the whisk. Pour this mixture into the waiting pan. Cook briefly (unless you are the kind of person who enjoys a rubber omelette). Turn out on to a plate. Salt to taste. Eat using a clean knife and fork.
Now stop and consider the above implements: the bowl that cradled the eggs, the knife, fork, and whisk, which made not only preparing the omelette possible but eating it neatly. The pan, where the eggs transformed from an inedible mass to a golden disk. Consider the refrigerator that kept the eggs fresh, and the stove, which heated the eggs. Realize how much you take all of the above for granted. Think about cooking, eating, or surviving without these items. Think about life without a fridge to keep your food cold or a stove to cook it. (With a nod here to those without power on the East Coast of the United States. We’re thinking of you.) Life would be brutally difficult.
Author Bee Wilson has considered life without kitchens or implements to furnish them, and the result, Consider the Fork, is a charming, engrossing investigation of what so many of us take for granted. “Tools,” she writes, “are first adopted because they meet a certain need or solve a particular problem, but over time the utensils we feel happy using are mainly determined by culture.” She goes on to say that while food histories abound, there is little about how humanity has prepared food through time.
For those who think a book about kitchenware a dull read, consider Wilson’s witty, inviting writing style. Contemplating her daily breakfast of toast, orange marmalade, butter, and coffee, she wonders how the passage of time will impact her breakfast preparation. erhaps oranges will become less available; far worse, though, would be the loss of butter due to limited grazing lands. “I pray this never happens”, Wilson writes. And how many food writers cite the immortal Nigel Tufnel and the guitar that goes to 11 in a food history, thus making you laugh during your commute, becoming the official weirdo on the train?
For those unconvinced by the Tufnel argument, Wilson’s introduction offers several fascinating insights into early cookery. For example, pots. Until somebody fashioned a bowl that could survive a cooking fire, people lacking teeth—and dentists did not abound in early civilization—likely starved. The creation of cooking vessels meant food could be placed over fire and heated to a tender consistency the lessened the intensity of chewing. If we consider widespread refrigeration, a comparatively recent invention, we realize that our grandmothers did not go out daily, basket on arm, to the charming outdoor market to get the finest produce because everyone was a default organic locavore. People shopped daily, sometimes more than once, because perishables had to be consumed immediately.
Wilson notes that new cooking technologies are often met with hostility. Early refrigeration was thought to damage foods—one need only think about refrigerating a tomato to agree—and microwave ovens, which became widespread in the ‘70s. Such things were met with a mix of terror and awe. My family’s first microwave, acquired around 1978, was an enormous box we couldn’t use when my grandmother visited, as the machine interfered with her pacemaker. We were warned never to stand in front of the machine while it ran, lest we were radiated along with the food.
To this day, some food purists shun the microwave. And, as Wilson points out, the microwave has in turn created to an entire category of frozen, heavily processed “meals” requiring no more than the push of a button, giving rise to a generation unable to prepare the lovely omelette mentioned above.
Another fascinating aspect of technology is not the wholesale rejection of it, but the decision not to take advantage of it. Wilson uses the example of the electric mixer, which makes baking a breeze but takes up valuable counter space. Further, the person who once bought desserts may now feel compelled to bake, a time-consuming proposition.
Wilson begins her study with pots and pans, those largely unsung kitchen necessities. While roasting dates back thousands of years, boiling and steaming required vessels. Vessels not only made food edible in some cases it rendered a poisonous raw food, like cassava, safe. Ancient peoples improvised pots from vegetables like hard gourds or bamboo, while others resorted using animal stomachs. Pottery appears somewhere around 10,000 B.C., changing cooking entirely. Wilson wryly point out that archaeologists, excavating our remains in the far future, may name us “Mug community… we were a people who liked our ceramics to be brightly colored, large enough to accommodate high volumes of comforting caffeinated drinks and above all dishwasher-proof.”
Iron pots created the idea of Batterie de Cuisine, the physically demanding and financially ruinous notion that for every step in a recipe, the right pot must be used. Thus the tiny sauce pot, the skillet for browning the mirepoix (carrots, celery, onions), the larger stew pot. Classical French cookery remains fiercely devoted to batterie. For the rest of us, lacking wealth and kitchen slaves, it’s a few pots doing the work of many.
The next chapter, “Knife”, goes into what many consider the fun part of cooking: danger. To cook is to expose oneself to sharp objects and extreme temperatures, often simultaneously. Every cook has a horror story involving knives or burns or both; Wilson describes using a mandolin, a very sharp slicing device, only to discover “a slice of myself on the wrong side of the blade, lying among the cucumber.” Wilson goes on to say knives are indeed phenomenally dangerous; after all, they are used as weapons. They are also some of the earliest implements used by humans, dating back 2.6 million years.
Today one can spend thousands of dollars on custom knives, then argue about the best ways to sharpen them. Wilson also describes knife etiquette, noting that Chinese cuisine is minced into bite sized pieces in the kitchen using a tou, or Chinese cleaver; using a knife at table is considered vulgar. Then there are the American and European ways of using knives: each considers the other barbaric.
Knife concludes with an ode to the mezzaluna, a curved knife with wooden grips at either end. One rocks the knife over food to finely chop it; devotees, including Nigella Lawson, like its safety. It’s hard to cut yourself when both hands are gripping the knife handles.
From knives Wilson moves to that other lethal cooking weapon: fire. She visits English food historian Ivan Day, who teaches historic cookery using his vast collection of antique equipment. He is most fanatic about spit cookery, or impaling meat on a spindle and turning it before a fire. While Wilson agrees his spit-roasted beef is the best she’s ever eaten, the history of spit roasting, indeed, of all open hearth cookery, is highly fraught.
In the case of spit roasting, somebody or something had to keep the spit turning, and in medieval England, this often meant a small child, or, in some cases, a caged dog. The heat was immense, the fires so hot that “turnspits” often worked naked or barely clothed. Women’s clothing, with its long skirts and wide sleeves, frequently caught fire. As for ventilation, well, ventilation hoods were far in the future. Equipment eventually improved, but this never mitigated the danger of an open flame. Ovens slowly overtook open hearth cookery, but early models were difficult to use and expensive to run.
“Measure” examines a fraught topic. When I was a child in the ‘70s, we were regularly threatened with conversion to the metric system. I was hopeless at math and failed to grasp the metric system’s logic; even now I cook “by hand”, measuring—using imperial measures—only when baking. I share this because there are a huge number of American cooks like me. Yet it is telling that the only countries who have failed to adopt the metric system are the United States, Burma, and Liberia. This is worrying company.
The world at large uses scales of varying types. They worry over how much their Pyrex measuring cups, those wonderfully indestructible kitchen items, actually hold. Wilson tackles the problem of weights, measures, and cooking with her usual humor and history: we can blame medieval England for most of these troubles. As for the American proclivity for cup measures, it likely dates to pioneer days, when tin cups were far more easily had than scales.
Measures also include time. Early cooks recited prayers or sang songs; recipe timing was recorded as such. Thermometers and clocks were a step forward, but even the best ovens remain notoriously unreliable, with hot spots or temperature readings far from accurate.
“Grind” is an enlightening chapter about just that. Modern cooks no longer have to pound their wheat or rice before eating it, which is a lucky thing, as the work is grueling. Wilson takes the reader back to the Roman era, when kitchens were staffed with servants who exhausted themselves producing soft, pulpy dishes that signified wealth. In an era predating blenders or food processors, smooth, silky foods demanded human effort. Wilson describes nuts and flours sifted repeatedly, nuts ground into dust. “Behind every course of a grand dinner was a mini-array of minions with sore arms.”
Going back even further, we encounter the mortar and pestle, virtually unchanged through millennia, though we moderns use them strictly for their sensual properties, those Alice Waters moments where we decide to pound ourselves a pesto. For earlier peoples, the mortar and pestle could mean the difference between eating or not, survival or starvation. The mortar and pestle was also critical in preparing medicines.
“Measure” brings us the invention of the Cuisinart—the first food processor—by inventor and French food devotee Carl Sontheimer. The first model was incredibly expensive and incredibly popular, though Wilson writes it led to a brief period of very mushy foods as people tried processing just about every comestible.
“Eat” takes on the utensil, beginning with spoons. “Gripping a spoon in the fist is one of the earliest milestones in our development.” Spoons also denoted your politics during the Cromwell era, only to be replaced by a model called the trifid, whose shape most closely resembles the modern spoon.
Forks were also revelatory, initial a source of consternation for their tri-pronged reminder of the devil. A host of rules grew up around correct usage, leading to anxieties about using the wrong fork that linger to this day (in America, begin the meal with the outermost fork, working inward through each course). Wilson also discusses chopsticks, including five Japanese words describing poor chopstick etiquette, an analysis which will make the more clumsy among us cringe with embarrassment. Wilson even takes time to discuss the spork, an implement with “an affectionate following”. She concludes with an ode to kitchen tongs, “the most useful handheld utensil I know.”
Ice, and the foods one could prepare with it, were of course enormous status items. As for everyday food preservation, the foods we now consider “artisanal”—charcuterie, jams, canned vegetables, salted fish, fermented foods—were all borne of the need to preserve foods for the colder months. Any child reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books hears time and again of meals based around salt pork or the occasional exceptional treat of canned peaches.
Pre-refrigeration, food preservation was a tricky business; nobody understood bacteria, and the popular new canning industry often created spoiled food. Any modern canner will shudder while reading about Nicolas Appert, the father of modern canning. He figured out how to can using water baths and corked bottles, though this being the late 1700’s, nothing was known about food acidity, which determines whether a food can be water or pressure canned, or, for that matter, if a water bath canned item requires a preservative like salt, vinegar, or citric acid. Countless people must have sickened and died.
Iceboxes appeared in the late 1800’s. As manufacture spread, so did difficulty: early models required constant cleaning, and the efforts required to keep them running almost negated their worth. Improvements created a revolution in the way we consider food: suddenly you could buy a chicken and freeze it rather than consuming it immediately. You could store perishables. And, of course, freezers gave way to a host of frozen dinners.
The final chapter, “Kitchen”, investigates what Wilson calls the “modernist” cooking of chefs like Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria, and Nathan Myhrvold. These men (I’ve yet to hear of a female modernist chef) are radically reconsidering everything about food: how we prepare it, serve it, what we use to eat it. Wilson is clearly not a fan of recipes calling for blue shimmer powder, but she does her best to be fair, writing about sous vide cookery, which involves placing food in a sealed plastic bag and placing it in a water bath for a given time. One must use a special machine for this, and as the food is vaccuum sealed, checking temperature and doneness is challenging to the household cook, though when done properly, the food is evidently superb. Some cookery inventions may be wonderful. In restaurants.
Stepping back, Wilson considers the kitchen itself, a room. In some ways, kitchens remain amazingly unchanged through time: what changes is the heat source and the storage methods. Fire dangers meant that early kitchens were separate from the main home; if one burned down, it didn’t take the house with it. Early British manses had kitchens comprised of multiple rooms, designated by task, gradually shifting to more modern models—servantless places where middle-class women would be spending time.
This gave rise to the quest for the perfect kitchen, a combination of ergonomics and consumerism. Wilson cites the Oxo Good Grips vegetable peeler, an object that has only been with us since 1990. I have one, and it does the job perfectly. It’s indeed easy to grip, even for a woman with carpal tunnel syndrome. The blade shape makes it difficult to injure oneself while using it. And before Wilson wrote about it, I never gave this item, which I use daily, a second thought.
Foods and the ways we prepare them at home are deeply intimate. Any home where people truly cook—I am not speaking here of the heat-and-eat crowd—has a house style. Certain foods are loved, others abhorred. Certain plain Pyrex bowls are imbued with deep affection, even love, while other, equally serviceable bowls languish in a back cupboard. One knife is always out, one cutting board is used more than the others.
The room itself may be your creation, remodeled to your specifications, or, like me, you are coping with the idiocy of a home builder who clearly never cooked (two electrical outlets?? the sink next to the oven??). Nonetheless, to be human is to eat, and for many of us, the kitchen is our respite, a source of happiness that until now, we gave scant consideration.