Review: Consider the Fork
Consider the Fork is Bee Wilson’s insightful book about the history of how we cook and what we eat.
Wilson covers the vast scope of human history in this book in a readable fashion by focusing each chapter on a single theme, like fire and ice, taking the reader through a brief history of each topic and how it relates to the evolution of cooking. For example in her chapter on kitchens Wilson covers the history of kitchens by writing about how the modern middle-class kitchen, for people who are actually eat what they cook, is something relatively new that has developed since World War I.
The main theme that permeates the book is how the technological advances of the past two hundred years have dramatically changed who is doing the cooking and how we eat. Wilson is particularly interested in the effect of labor saving devices that have reduced the need for women to have to spend all day cooking in the kitchen and have opened up certain dishes and types of cooking to people that used to only be for the rich, who would have had their own cooks.
Among the best examples, Wilson uses is the story of the origin of the Cuisinart, a technological wonder that was developed by Carl Sontheimer to be able to make quenelles. Quenelles are a dish that was almost exclusively for the rich, because they are the paste of chicken or fish that requires “long pounding and sieving to ensure it was satin smooth.”
The most interesting part of this story is how the birth of the food processor led so many people to get “hooked on the whole process of ambitious cooking.” The impact was that “a single machine transformed how many people felt about spending time in the kitchen. It was no longer a place of drudgery – a site of weary arms and downtrodden housewives. It was a place where you made delicious things happen at the flick of a switch.”
Wilson is very evenhanded in how she presents technological changes in cooking, including both the positives and negatives of the most important changes. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on fire where she discusses how the hearth really was the center of family life and how the best roast beef she ever had was cooked by roasting it on a spit over an open fire, something that helped her appreciate the historical reputation of English roast beef.
I found she balanced these romantic notions of the past well with the real world implications of spit roasting – which meant someone, often a child or dogs, spending hours turning the meat to cook it evenly, coupled with the dangers of having a large open fire burning in the kitchen, and the health impact of breathing smoke all day.
I also appreciate how, for the most part, Wilson tries to stay open minded towards new cooking techniques. At the beginning of the section on sous-vide, Wilson talks about her hesitation by saying “I was a sous-vide skeptic. I didn’t like the aesthetics, the wasted plastic and lack of romance.”
Yet, after trying sous-vide cooking at home Wilson found that “when you get it right, however, sous-vide food is extraordinary, even hyperreal.” This change doesn’t make her a convert, instead, she uses it as an opportunity to highlight how changes in kitchen technology have opened up options for how food is cooked.
This is the type of thinking and openness that is too often missing from food writing that spends its time busily advocating for one technique or approach over another, rather than helping people understand why things work, so they can try different approaches and use what works best for them.
The book is a really good read for anyone interested in the history of cooking and a valuable resource for anyone interested in the role of technology in the home and its impact on gender roles. Overall, Wilson does an excellent job of packing the history of cooking into bite sized chunks that explain how the technology involved has changed how we cook and what it has meant to the people cooking.
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Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson
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