Consider the Fork with Bee Wilson
When you enter your kitchen and prepare to cook, do you grab a couple of cans, a measuring cup and maybe a whisk? Do you fire up your rice cooker and turn on the stove, setting the timer to know when precisely when everything is done? Do you ever wonder about how these items all came to be? Bee Wilson is a food writer, historian, and author and she joined me on Amys Table to talk about her lates book, Consider the Fork, A History of How We Cook and Eat.
Bee offered an insightful look at how we’ve changed food and how food has changed us in fascinating and unexpected ways, offering entertaining anecdotes about the influence of culture and kitchen technologies on our cuisine. Here are just a few highlights:
Different cuisines are founded not just on different flavors but different knives. French cuisine requires many knives; Chinese cooking needs only one, the ‘tou’, used for everything from jointing chickens to cutting garlic into paper-thin slices.
Apart from the original invention of cooking with fire, gas-powered heat was the single greatest improvement ever to occur in kitchen technology. It liberated millions from the pollution, discomfort, and sheer time-waste of looking after a fire.
Canned food was first invented in 1812. Yet it would be a further fifty years before anyone managed to devise a can opener with which to access the food inside.
Why do Americans continue to measure ingredients with cups while the rest of the world uses scales? Because the process of measuring isn’t just about accuracy; it’s about how it makes the cook feel. Measuring flour in cups – like Fannie Farmer – makes American cooks feel safe.
The French say you should never cut dressed salad with a knife. The reason is that until the invention of stainless steel cutlery, steel knives would have reacted with the acid in vinaigrette, making it taste horrible.
The focus of our kitchen lives has moved from fire to ice. Once, the starting point around which every kitchen was designed was a hearth. Now, it is likely to be a refrigerator.
The mortar and pestle is one of the oldest kitchen tools: grindstones were first used in Neolithic times and the ancient Greeks and Romans had mortars that looked very much like the ones in our cookware stores. Yet the function of the mortar has completely changed from pain to pleasure. Once, it was a back-aching tool for grinding enough subsistence to stay alive. Now, it’s something we use for fun weekend cooking projects.
The fork is now our most universal piece of cutlery, used for everything from spaghetti to cake, fancy dinners to fast food snacks. But the table fork is a relatively recent invention and it attracted scorn and laughter when it first appeared.
The alignment of our jaws and teeth in an ‘overbite’ is a very recent phenomenon—in the West, it only goes back around 250 years. The probable cause? Our adoption of the knife and fork at table, which saw us cutting food into small pieces before putting it in our mouths.