We Are What We Eat, and What We Used to Make What We Eat – A Review of Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson

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When one reads books about food, more often than not the book tackles the food, and the culture that produced it, and usually, this is enough for most readers. Whether one is reading a cook’s memoir, or a travel writer’s anecdotes, or even a cookbook, the book will likely primarily concern itself with the two things I just mentioned. There are also the micro-histories, books that cover the influence of a particular foodstuff on the course of history (there are excellent ones for beer and coffee that are readily available), and the broader tracts that attempt to look at how food impacts us today, particularly our health, and how it will impact us in the future.

However, in the midst of all this very interesting, thought-provoking, and cravings-inducing reading, there is almost no book that tackles the technology involved in actually making food. When talking about technology and food, one is more likely to encounter books on agriculture and the growing of food, as opposed to actual food preparation. Occasionally one may stumble across a book on molecular gastronomy that will talk about a sous-vide machine, or perhaps a specialized cookbook or micro-history explaining the importance of a wok or a tagine pot, but there hasn’t been a book that focused entirely on pots and pans and forks and spoons.

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson fills in this gap. In her introduction she discusses how she, like many readers interested in food and in the history of food, has not encountered a book about things like forks and spoons (or sporks, for that matter), and how those things have influenced not just how we eat, but also what we eat. Therefore, Consider the Fork takes a close look at the history of such familiar things as the cooking pot and the knife, while at the same time allowing the reader a glimpse at such esoteric items as cider owls and holdfasts: items which have gone as extinct as the dodo because there is no use for them anymore.

Beginning with pots and pans, Wilson then moves down through to the knife, fire (in all its “tamed” forms, from the bonfire used by early humanity to the sophisticated stoves and ranges of today), measuring utensils, food processors (and not just the electric behemoths we now know as food processors), cutlery, ice (in the form of the refrigerator and its predecessors), and finally the kitchen itself. Throughout each chapter Wilson explores not only how these inventions have altered over the years through to today, but also how they have shaped our food and, therefore, how we eat. Technology, Wilson states, not only changes how we eat, but also what we eat – and, therefore, shapes our culture in the sense that it shapes the way we look at food.

Nowhere is this made more clear than in the two most dominant pieces of technology in any home kitchen: the stove, and the refrigerator. Fire and ice: both have had an extremely important role to play in the way food is prepared and stored today, and therefore influence how we eat. Fire is quite obvious: heat transforms food, making it not only more delicious, but also more digestible. Anthropologists have theorized that when humanity learned to tame fire in the deep, dark past, and then used that fire to cook food, it allowed humanity to evolve from a cousin to chimpanzees into what our species is today by letting us derive more nutrition than what would otherwise have been accessible to our bodies by eating food raw – extra nutrition that would go to making human brains so big. It also expanded the repertoire of things our species could eat: for instance, some foods that would normally have been poisonous (such as cassava) become edible after a certain amount of preparation that often includes the application of heat – or cooking.

In her chapter discussing fire, Wilson focuses primarily on the act of roasting meat – something that means a very different thing today compared to what it meant in the Victorian Age, for instance, or even in the Medieval period. Back then, “roasting” was synonymous to “spit-roasting”: putting hunks of meat on a sturdy pole, placing them just so near a fire, and then laboriously turning that meat so that it cooks just so. This method is still in use today in some places – not least here in the Philippines, where the spit-roasted pig, or lechon, is extremely popular – but spit-roasting is a dying art everywhere because it is so very time-consuming. The master lechon roasters of the Philippines are few and far between now, and more often than not lechon is now made on automatic roasting machines. Nowadays, when one “roasts” something, one places it in an oven to, technically, bake. This is a difference that Wilson emphasizes in her book: to roast is to cook something over an open flame; to bake is to cook something in an oven.

As for ice, it is more often associated with the preservation of food (though it did not start out that way), as opposed to the transformation of it, but that too has changed the way we eat today. Prior to refrigeration people ate seasonally, and went to market everyday, buying only what was available in amounts that could be readily consumed within the day. Refrigeration changed that by allowing people to not only store fresh food for longer, but also allowing food from other places to travel greater distances without rotting. There were, of course, various methods of preserving food pre-refrigeration: salting, for instance, or pickling, or candying – but what is interesting is that these methods have not disappeared just because refrigeration has become widespread. This is a phenomenon that Wilson looks into as well: how some aspects of cuisine do not disappear just because a technology has come along that could conceivably make said aspect obsolete.

There are also a great many little bits of information scattered throughout the book: for instance, the disposable chopstick was created not in America (as I assumed), but in Japan, as a response to cultural taboos regarding utensils used for eating. Or that the gradual dulling of the dinner knife – and the gradual return to increasing sharpness in the form of the steak knife – was the result of not just changing cooking methods but also changes in table etiquette in upper-class dining rooms. Or that while the French use a great many specialized knives for cooking, the Chinese get on fine with just one – and that this is also an indication of the nature of French and Chinese culture, respectively. There are many more interesting tidbits, of course – such as how the introduction of the food processor changed haute cuisine in the 1960s-70s – scattered throughout the book, that will pique the interest of anyone who is interested in the history of food and the technology associated with it. Either way, the point that Wilson wishes to get across is consistent: technology changes what we eat and how we eat it, and will keep on doing so well into the future.

However, this book is not without its problems – primarily in its organization. While I have no complaints with the tone of Wilson’s writing, I do have some issue with the way she has organized the book. There is something very scattered about the way the sections are organized, as if each chapter were written independent of the other, and then arranged according to some indiscernible whim of either the author or the editor. One might assume that logically, a book on the technology of food and cooking would begin with fire and progress from there all the way down to cutlery – from the kitchen to the table, so to speak – but that is not how the book is arranged. As a result, the reader tends to jump from item to item, technology to technology, with no clear association between them except what said reader may already know from his or her previous experience. As I said, this can be problematic: since there is no clear line of progress, so to speak, it can be a bit jarring when one connects one chapter to the next. It’s not entirely too difficult – a testament to the lucidity of Wilson’s writing – but it does have a bit of a zigzagging quality to it that might irritate readers for whom lucid writing might not be sufficient.

Overall, Consider the Fork is a very interesting, and very insightful, book. Wilson states: “[w]e always patronizingly forget that great thought has always gone into how best to cook,” and this is very true. Perhaps because of their ubiquity we tend to forget about the tools that have allowed humanity to create the miracle of cuisine, and therefore we also forget how much careful thought, experimentation, and important accidents have gone into giving us something as simple as a sauce pot, or a wok, or a rolling pin, or even the knife, spoon, fork, or chopsticks we use at the table to consume what other technologies have allowed us to make in the first place. We also seem to forget how much those technologies have changed the culture of eating, as well: how a wok is different from a frying pan and thus has directed the trajectory of an entire culture’s cuisine, or how the choice of using chopsticks has done the same. Though there are some organizational problems to this book, it remains an enjoyable, and educational, read, and will surely satisfy anyone with even the slightest interest in food.

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