Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson
While staring lovingly at my bookshelf recently, I found this in my collection. I hadn’t had the chance to read it yet.
As a complete lover of all things to do with food, I thought it would be an interesting read. It turns out, it was.
As I moved, like a cat, with the sun around my house, I learned about different cooking methods over time. Wilson mostly covers the processes, think roasting vs sous-viding, and the utensils we’ve used throughout time.
Some of the imagery Wilson describes is illuminating. The Romans made spoons by tying shells to sticks. I feel like I want one. Many cooks in aristocratic houses in England during the medieval and Victorian times worked naked because of the intense heat. All that prudishness while you had several naked sweaty men downstairs. I might have been a curious heiress…
These are just a few things that interested me from the book.
Wilson explains the importance of utensils to aid our cooking. Everything from chiseled rock to ergonomic spatulas has a slow history of trial and error. Did you know most people in the western world only could afford one pot to cook with? Therefore, your dessert sponge and cabbage stew would taste a little like cabbagey-pudding.
I discovered there existed an ice cream machine in 1883 that made ice cream in 5 minutes. Today’s machines take one hour. Agnes Marshall, the inventor of the machine, even made ice cream with liquid nitrogen. Watch out, Heston Blumenthal!
Wilson explains the original oddness of the fork and how the Italians were the first nation to adopt the tiny spears. Think spaghetti. The fork not only drastically changed how we eat but it has even shaped our jaws.
Can you imagine that the can opener was only invented 50 years after the tin can? One had to use a hammer and chisel! With the rate of new technology today, one has to stop and ponder.
The wire balloon whisk was invented by the Victorians. Before that, egg whites whipping would be done with a bunch of sticks tied together. More than one person had to contribute to this egg beating due to the exhaustion of the task!
Women in the Kitchen
Most of the work in the kitchen was done by women. If you’re not doing the work yourself, you’re not going to go through the trouble of making the work easier. This explains the slow amelioration of basic kitchen tools.
Women were often at more risk of dying in their own houses than anywhere else. Their long skirts and trailing sleeves often led to early deaths.
The most simple of conveniences were denied to the cooks of the past. Clocks were expensive; therefore, cooks in France used prayers for keeping time. There was a lot of room for error. I would hate to be responsible for the soufflés!
Measuring ingredients was tricky. Recipes used worldwide common knowledge. A walnut sized lump of butter. A bullet sized knob. Wilson explains the thinking behind the ridiculousness of using cups to measure ingredients. This is something I was unaware of until I started baking with my British man.
People, until quite recently, used to throw a strip of paper into the oven to try and induce the temperature therein. If it burst into flame, it was good for bread baking. The variety of browns produced by lower temperatures were suitable for different things. This descended all the way to a light yellow, which is ideal for meringues.
Oh, and drastically important for my life as an expat here in France, I learned why the Brits are called Rosbifs by the French. I’m proud to know it was for a good reason.
Have you read this book? What did you think? Any similar recommended reading?