I love to read and write about food books. I enjoy recipe books somewhat, but I really like books about how we eat, and eating together. At Christmas I received among my presents, Consider the Fork, by Bee Wilson. Consider the Fork takes the reader through history (largely northern and western) and shows how the utensils we choose to cook and eat with affect not only our diets, but also our social customs, and vice-versa.
The first thing I found to appreciate about this book is that the author is a cook at heart. This means that her research is not limited to books and journals, but is also done within her own kitchen as well as some kitchens that serve as historical re-creations. Having read this book, a visit to Ivan Day’s kitchen will definitely be on my list of things to do if I ever make it over to England.
One of the interesting aspects of the book is how little innovation there has been in the kitchen over the course of centuries. Some of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that technology has only recently allowed us to harness the properties of various elements to bring out the best in each of them.
Another reason though, and one that Wilson highlights right from the start, is that some of the simplest technologies are the one’s that work best. Along with this is the author’s claim, made in the introduction:
Microwaves plus convenience foods offer the freedom of being able to feed yourself with a few pushes of a button, But it’s not such a great advance if you lose all concept of what it would mean to make a meal for yourself.
No matter how advanced the techniques become, they aren’t an improvement if they remove us from our ability to interact with our food.
Beyond this Wilson takes us on a tour of world history that demonstrates how it is that kitchen innovations often come as a result of forces outside the kitchen as opposed to forces inside it. As long as kitchens needed great fires to produce enough heat to properly cook food, the equipment such as roasting forks would also be large.
As long as there was a large labour pool to fill the many tasks that were part of feeding the households of the wealthy, there was little need for efficiency. On the other end of the spectrum, the lack of choice available to the poor in terms of the kind of food eaten, meant that there was little need to produce large quantities of equipment. It was only with modern times and the development of a middle-class with disposable income that you will find a house with stove, microwave, toaster oven, electric griddle, sandwich maker, etc…
Yet, as Wilson notes above, all of these things take us away from the concept of cooking a meal. They are simply trends that we latch onto for a while and then completely forget. Many of the things talked about in Consider the Fork, remind me of comedian Andy Parson’s bit on Mock the Week:
Under the category of Unlikely Instructions.
Instructions for sandwich toaster – week one, eat nothing but toasted sandwiches.
Week two, put in cupboard and never use again!
Nevertheless Wilson takes the reader on a literate, scholarly and entertaining journey through all these trends. This book can be enjoyed on the basis of reading a chapter or day, but holds the interest of the reader from start to finish if that’s the approach you prefer.
The book has a small reading group guide at the back of the book. The questions are all right, but only designed for casual discussion, which I suppose a lot of book clubs might like. I prefer questions that provoke deeper discussion.
If you are the sort of person that likes to spend time thinking about the ways in which we eat, and the meaning behind how we eat, you’ll really enjoy Consider the Fork. If you are looking for an entertaining read, you’ll also enjoy it. Consider the Fork should be on the bookshelf of anyone interested in reading about food.