From me­dieval roasts to er­gonomic peel­ers

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - CON­SIDER THE FORK A His­tory of How We Cook and Eat By Bee Wil­son Ba­sic. 327 pp. $26.99 ben­wickb@wash­post.com

Lots of peo­ple don’t cook. Of the ones who choose not to do so, I’d wa­ger a good many have ac­cess to a kitchen or a toaster oven. I have never un­der­stood this — even rec­og­niz­ing that, for some, food is merely fuel. Yet heat ap­plied to that fuel in its raw state can be glo­ri­ously trans­for­ma­tive. Fast, or slow and au­to­mat­i­cally. We live in an age of high-per­for­mance ap­pli­ances and uten­sils, de­liv­ered gro­ceries. Has con­ve­nience be­come too . . . con­ve­nient?

If only they knew about the tech­ni­cal ad­vance­ment of, say, the ro­tis­serie, per­haps those folks would ap­pre­ci­ate their place in the culi­nary con­tin­uum. The me­dieval English, in spite of their ci­vil­ity, used 5-year-old or­phans to turn spit-roasted hunks of beef over open flames. Af­ter that, spits were rigged to wheel-like wooden tread­mills mounted on the wall, pow­ered by walking dogs caged in­side. (Il­lus­tra­tions are worth Googling.) Dog wheels made their way across the pond and were used in Amer­i­can restau­rant kitchens into the 1800s.

This is the stuff of “Con­sider the Fork,” Bri­tish food writer Bee Wil­son’s am­bi­tious, blender­ized treatise. The path from Stone Age flints to sous-vide machines whirs so smoothly that I found my­self re-read­ing pas­sages just to trace how the au­thor man­aged to work in a Vic­to­rian cop­per bat­terie de cui­sine along the way.

A full five chap­ters be­fore the fork is con­sid­ered, there are en­tire “Jeop­ardy!” cat­e­gories of fac­toids to di­gest. Asam­pler:

The broiler oven com­monly called a sala­man­der got its name from the 19th-cen­tury open-fire uten­sil named for a myth­i­cal dragon that could with­stand great heat.

The United States is one of only three coun­tries, along with Myan­mar and Liberia, that has not adopted a culi­nary met­ric sys­tem.

The French states­man Car­di­nal Riche­lieu was re­spon­si­ble for bring­ing dull-edged knives to the din­ing ta­ble.

By 1977, more food pro­ces­sors per capita were in use in the Mid­dle East than any­where else in the world.

“Mor­eish” is an ad­jec­tive (that food writ­ers don’t use of­ten enough).

If Wil­son can be faulted in this work, it might be for a soup­con of anti-Amer­i­can bias. Our re­fusal to es­chew Fan­nie Farmer’s recipe mea­sures in level spoons and cups shows how stub­born we are, she sug­gests, how set in our ways. We, or rather Tif­fany, in­vented a serv­ing spoon for potato chips, for heaven’s sake. Our very way of life was made pos­si­ble “by re­frig­er­a­tion.”

An­other quib­ble: The 19th cen­tury ac­counts for a con­sid­er­able amount of “Con­sider the Fork’s” rev­e­la­tions. Is that be­cause the era in­spired so much culi­nary in­no­va­tion or be­cause the au­thorhis­to­rian was able to tap into such ex­ten­sive re­sources?

Wil­son is at her most con­vinc­ing when she speaks for home cooks, spo­ton when she de­clares that it’s point­less to search for the per­fect pan. Her pref­er­ence for the func­tion­al­ity of a stick blender over the coun­ter­top model rings true. Hav­ing grown up us­ing a sub­par veg­etable peeler, she un­abashedly ad­mires the er­gonomic OXO model in­tro­duced in 1990.

Once the fork is prop­erly in­tro­duced in the book, rea­sons for its top billing be­come clear. Se­lect­ing the right one in Vic­to­rian times meant you knew the rules of the game, Wil­son says. There have been spe­cial forks for sar­dines, sweet­meats and even ice cream; well, ac­tu­ally the lat­ter was more of a spork. Yet the eat­ing uten­sil we take for granted to­day was re­jected or scorned out­right for hun­dreds of years — with the ex­cep­tion of the Ital­ians, who twirled pasta around tines and speared meat on the plate as it was cut.

The use of forks was deemed crude by Queen Elizabeth I, in­ef­fec­tive by the 17th-cen­tury Bri­tish poet Ni­cholas Bre­ton and ef­fem­i­nate by his coun­try’s sailors as late as 1897. None­the­less, forks were catch­ing on in Euro­pean coun­tries be­yond the Boot. They be­came in­stru­ments of re­fine­ment, man­ners and cul­ture. The au­thor breaks it down thusly:

“Both the Amer­i­cans and the Bri­tish se­cretly find each other’s way of us­ing a fork to be very vul­gar: the Bri­tish think they are po­lite be­cause they never put down their knives; Amer­i­cans think they are po­lite be­cause they do. We are two na­tions sep­a­rated by com­mon table­ware, as well as by a com­mon lan­guage.”

Fit­tingly, kitchens are the sub­ject of the fi­nal chap­ter. Their de­sign, of­ten dic­tated by trends that last but a few decades, might lie at the heart of why peo­ple don’t cook. Above all, a kitchen ought to be com­fort­able — as er­gonomic as that OXO peeler. And, Wil­son says, they come alive only when you cook in them.

Bon­nie S. Ben­wick is deputy ed­i­tor of The Washington Post’s Food sec­tion. She edited “The Washington Post Cook­book: Read­ers’ Fa­vorite Recipes,” to be pub­lished this spring.

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