Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, by Bee Wilson (author), Alison Larkin (narrator)

Tantor Audio, October 2012

This is a fascinating look at the history, not of foods or of cooking, but of the technology of cooking.

What we eat and how we cook is determined not just by what raw food materials are available, but also by the available tools. Mastering fire was the first step toward eating food that isn't raw, and therefore things that simply aren't edible unless they are cooked. The next step were cooking vessels--we have pottery shards to help us trace the invention and development of clay pots, but we probably used hollowed-out gourds first.

Knives predated that, but spoons followed. Spoons are used in every culture; they're essential to any cooking more complicated than roasting a carcass over an open fire.

Both how we used fire, and what other utensils, continued to develop, and all of this sounds very dry and mundane. It isn't. Bee Wilson gives us a lively, complicated, completely absorbing story, both of how our tools advanced, and how we adapted to them. The fact that western cultures use knives at the table has tremendous ramifications for both how we cook, and our table manners. China, Japan, the countries that use chopsticks rather than knife and fork at the table cook in a completely different way, with the cook doing all the knife work, presenting at the table only food which no further cutting. Table manners reflect this, with no need to be careful one is not accidentally threatening someone with your knife.

One aspect of the history of food preparation, cooking, and eating is that it tends to be deeply conservative. People find comfort in the food and cooking methods they grew up with, and tend to be suspicious of innovation. One example is a relatively recent one, refrigeration, which has clear and obvious advantages for food safety and the ability to keep enough food that each day doesn't revolve around bringing in fresh food--obvious, at least, to us. When first developed, cold storage for food was regarded with great suspicion. Would cold-stored food be safe? Would it taste as good? Was it a wicked plot by food vendors, to withhold food and drive up prices?

Now, in most of the developed world, we'd be horrified to do without it. And Wilson makes the story of how we got from distrust to widespread reliance on refrigeration lively and entertaining.

It's a lot of fun, a lot more fun than I'm making it sound.

Highly recommended.

I bought this audiobook.