Not the “what” but the “how” of cooking and eating

Mortar & Pestle

Photo by WildVanilla (Rob) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Atlantic recently ran Scott Douglas’s interview with Bee Wilson, author of Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat. The book examines many of the technologies throughout human history that have assisted in the preparation and consumption of foodstuffs and, in doing so, changed cultures and lives. Consider, for example, some of the dangers that cooking with fire has posed:

The big cauldron was heated over an indoor fire that, you write, was the center of the typical home. What happened after the hearth was replaced by a more removed kitchen?

One change is fewer accidental deaths from young children toddling into fires by mistake or women’s billowing skirts catching ablaze as they cooked. Women were particularly at risk from open hearths, on account of the terrible combination of billowing skirts, trailing sleeves, open flames, and bubbling cauldrons. With the emergence of enclosed brick chimneys and cast iron fire grates in the 17th century, many more women became professional cooks: At last they could cook with only a minimal risk of setting fire to themselves.

For more, check out reviews of the book. For example, Dawn Drzal asks in The New York Times,

“Which comes first, the stir-fry or the wok?” It may sound like a bad joke, but the answer holds the key to one of the world’s great cuisines. Bee Wilson’s supple, sometimes playful style in “Consider the Fork,” a history of the tools and techniques humans have invented to feed themselves, cleverly disguises her erudition in fields from archaeology and anthropology to food science. Only when you find yourself rattling off statistics at the dinner table will you realize how much information you’ve effortlessly absorbed….

So, which does come first, the stir-fry or the wok? Wilson’s answer is, “Neither.” To solve the riddle, we have to take a step back and contemplate cooking fuel: firewood was scarce, and with a wok you could cook more quickly after chopping food into bite-size morsels with a tou, or Chinese cleaver. Chopsticks were also part of this “symbiosis.”

As Steven Poole writes in The Guardian,

[Wilson’s] argument is clear and persuasive. Changes in food technology change what can be prepared as a meal, thus changing what is habitually eaten, and often spurring wider social changes. The first clay cooking pots, Wilson says, allowed the invention of soups, which meant that more humans could survive into adulthood even if they had lost all their teeth. Other developments analysed here, with a consistent scholarly grace, include the blunt table knife, the gas hob, and the refrigerator.

Buy the book at fine booksellers everywhere, or do as I just did and check out the print or electronic book from your local library. In the meantime, take a look at the lovely promotional video for the book that features Wilson giving a brief overview of her work.


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