If your idea of a perfect evening is curling up under a blanket, sipping on a cup of tea and learning all about why butter knives are dull. then Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat is for you. This is the book that will answer all the burning questions you have ever asked yourself about your kitchen. (And plenty that you haven't, like that one about butter knives. The answer: so your neighbor would be less likely to stab you up once people stopped carrying personal knives.)
Seriously, though, Consider the Fork is an interesting read that covers -- as its subtitle indicates -- the history of humans and their cooking and eating habits: from fire to forks, from microwaves to measuring cups.
My mom picked this book out for me as a Christmas present after I lent her my copy of Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life, raving about how much I had adored it.
Although author Bee Wilson lacks Bill Bryson's wry wit, the warmth in her writing balances out the intense scholarly tone of Consider the Fork; this is a meticulously researched book, and it includes notes, a full bibliography and a detailed index for those who want to continue their kitchen exploration.
The book is separated into the following chapters: "Pots and Pans," "Knife," "Fire," "Measure," "Grind," "Eat," "Ice" and "Kitchen." Each chapter explores its specific topic and is punctuated, at the end, with a brief anecdote about an implement specific to the topic: the mezzaluna in the chapter on knives, the egg timer in the chapter on measurements, the nutmeg grater in the "Grind" chapter, and so on.
In her introduction, Wilson points out that while much has been written about the history of food, little attention has been paid to technique:
"[W]hat we cooked rather than how we cooked it...As a result, half the story is missing. This matters. We change the texture, the taste, the nutritional content, and the cultural associations of ingredients simply by using different tools and techniques to prepare them.
Beyond this, we human beings have been changed by kitchen technology--the how of food as well as the what."
I was especially taken by two of the earliest chapters in the book: Fire and Measure. In her treatment of fire, Wilson explains how humans have used fire over the centuries to develop various cooking methods, and how those methods have informed the way we design our cooking implements -- pots and pans, utensils, and appliances. Considering fire in its social context, Wilson writes:
"Throughout history, we have sought to enclose and control fire, this focus of our social lives. We tamed it with rock hearths; we built great halls around it; we enclosed it in metal grates; we shut it off in cast-iron ranges; we submitted it to our will with the gas oven. Finally, we found a way of cooking without it in a microwave ... There are signs that we miss fire and regret its absence from our lives."
This passage evoked so many nights around a campfire, toasting marshmallows, drinking beer, and cooking enchiladas in a heavy cast-iron pot buried in burning embers and ash.
The next chapter, "Measure," also struck a personal chord, as my beginnings as a cook are rooted in baking. Bee Wilson takes us on a journey that begins with turn-of-the-century measure master Fannie Merritt Farmer, who penned The Boston Cooking School Cookbook in 1896 and to whom Americans owe the dubious debt of gratitude for our reliance on cup measurements, due to her preference for dealing "in fixed and level measures." Wilson goes on to explore the history of measurements across time and cultures, citing her own favorite methods and devices, but ultimately concluding that "[m]any things that matter in the kitchen are beyond measuring: how much you enjoy the company of those you dine with; the satisfaction of using up the last crust of bread before it goes moldy." That last example made my heart sing, since using up bits and pieces and scraps before they must be disposed of is practically an Olympic sport at our house.
In all, Consider the Fork is absorbing, a fascinating look at the "hows" and "whys" of what we do when we step into the kitchen to transform ingredients into meals. Aside from a few minor quibbles -- we don't consider the fork until chapter six, and I hated the little sketches of cooking tools and implements that offset the type on some pages -- I found the book charming and thought-provoking.