Bee Wilson, author of “Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat,” likes butter, and she likes to cook. Her book about the cooking history of humankind, from clay pots on campfires to sous vide machines, is “an exploration of the way the implements we use in the kitchen affect what we eat, how we eat and what we feel about what we eat.”
I love it when a book, or art, makes me look at my everyday world anew like Wilson does. She is a food writer in England who was once a Research Fellow in the History of Ideas at Cambridge. (Surely a great background for writing an intriguing book.)
Instead of having to admit as Michael Pollan recently did that, in spite of writing often and authoritatively about food, he didn’t really cook, Wilson actually cooks. She calls it most always a “pleasurable activity,” and describes what it feels like to “stand with nose over a pan inhaling the perfume of garlic and thyme in a sauce for the sheer pleasure of it.”
Wilson puts herself in the narrative just often enough for me to imagine her contemplating the objects in her book, each time she sets out to work in her kitchen. I can picture her cooking for a family – day in, day out.
Tracing the use of pots and pans (not used as long as you might think), she calls them “unassuming household gods ” – making the rack of hanging pots over my stove a pantheon of sorts! Her attitude inspires the everyday. She says: “Few moments in the day are happier than when I sling a pot on the stove, knowing that supper will soon be bubbling away, filling the house with good scents.”
She’s not about gadgets – though she writes about them – her kitchen seems so familiar. She also talks about early kitchens (often outbuildings) and kitchens in stately homes. She speaks of mortars and pestles and ice-cream makers, about the friendly hum of a refrigerator (and how recent that invention and how critical), about the development of knives and our human overbites (a function of cutting meat rather than having to tear it).
She looks closely at measuring devices (including America’s peculiar fixation on determining quantity with cups rather than weighing ingredients like the rest of the world), and praises the ever-useful Pyrex measuring cup. She writes of recipes and the wonders of micro-planers, admires the Oxo peeler, and dismisses as often “soulless,” kitchen remodels that remove all traces of history in a kitchen.
In the most modern kitchen one is still doing “an old, old thing: using the transformative power of fire to make something taste better.” Wilson writes: “We chop food with knives, stir it with spoons, and cook it in pots. As we stand in our modern kitchens, we still use the colanders, the pestles, and the frying pans of the ancients. We do not start from first principles every time we want to produce a meal but draw on the tools and ingredients we have at hand, governed by the rules and taboos and memories we all carry in our heads about cuisine.”
I loved reading this book – about toasters, egg timers, and a new tool to me – the beautiful mezzaluna. Whether describing the spork zipped in a side pouch of a travel bag and pulled out to meet a “forgot to get a spoon or fork” emergency or a battered and stained favorite wooden spoon, Wilson’s prose and Annabel Lee’s perfect drawings make the whole book a pleasure to consider.