Thursday, June 13, 2013

Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson is chock-full of interesting information. By the time I'd finished reading the book, I'd flagged about 20 pages. The illustrations by Annabel Lee add a graceful note as well.

These are just a few of the things I learned:

"We no longer feel the need of cider owls and dangle spits, flesh-forks and galley pots, trammels, and muffineers, though in their day, these would have seemed no more superfluous than our oil drizzlers, electric herb choppers, and ice-cream scoops. Kitchen gizmos offer a fascinating glimpse into the preoccupations of any given society."

"The original curfew was a kitchen object: a large metal cover placed over the embers at night to contain the fire while people slept."

In "1823, Mary Eaton, a cookery writer, advised that the egg whites for a large cake would take three hours to beat adequately."

The Cuisinart "transformed how many people felt about spending time in the kitchen. It was no longer a place of drudgery -- a site of weary arms and downtrodden housewives. It was a place where you made delicious things happen at the flick of a switch."

Wilson writes about one of my favourite gadgets when she explains why it doesn't work to grate ginger on a nutmeg grater and vice versa. "If you need a tool to grate both spices (and zest lemon, and grate Parmesan), then forget tradition and buy a Microplane." I hadn't known the Microplane was a Canadian invention launched in 1994, and that the inspiration came when a housewife "borrowed one of her husband's wood rasps to grate the zest for an orange cake."

"A patent for Nicolas Appert's revolutionary new canning process was issued in 1812, and the first canning factory opened in Bermondsey, London, in 1813. Yet it would be a further fifty years before anyone managed to devise a can opener." (People were instructed to cut open cans with a hammer and chisel before that.)

The drawback to copper pots is that "pure copper is poisonous when it comes into contact with food, particularly acids," so they must be lined with another metal. "Cooks ignorant of the ill effects of copper actually sought out its greening powers, using unlined copper pans to make pickled green walnuts and green gherkins. In short, copper pans are great, apart from the fact that they potentially make food taste bad and poison you."

The chapter on fire recounts the time when "a single fire served to warm a house, heat water for washing, and cook dinner." Cooking was largely the art of fire management at that time, as it still is in some parts of the world. Ten years ago, I spent a couple of months working on a farm (Finca La Mohea) in southern Spain where a hearth fire was used for all of the above. There, my favourite cooking tool was a headlamp. I used it to see inside the pots as I cooked in the dark, non-electrified kitchen.
My instructions for making lemon marmalade included no measurements.
I was told to combine lemons and sugar and cook until it was thick.
It was February, and chilly, so the cats liked to stay warm by the fire.
The kitchen only looks bright because of the camera flash; it was actually very dark.
The marmalade was delicious, by the way!
Did you know that the USA, Liberia and Myanmar/Burma are the only three countries not to have officially adopted the metric system? Discrepancies in cup measurements make recipes confusing. In the UK, it's 284 ml; in Australia: 250 ml; in USA: 236.59 ml; and in Canada: a cup is only 227 ml.

The custom of cutting food into little pieces before it was eaten has made a significant change in our bodies. "What the orthodontists don't tell you is that the overbite is a very recent aspect of human anatomy and probably results from the way we use our table knives. Based on surviving skeletons, this has only been the 'normal' alignment of the human jaw for 200 to 250 years in the Western world. Before that, most human beings had an edge-to-edge bite, comparable to apes."

"We take forks for granted. But the table fork is a relatively recent invention, and it attracted scorn and laughter when it first appeared. Its image was not helped by its associations with the Devil and his pitchfork."

In the eleventh century, a Byzantine princess was "damned for her 'excessive delicacy' in preferring [a fork] to her God-given hands. The story of this absurd princess and her ridiculous fork was still being told in church circles two hundred years later."

Italy adopted the fork before any other European country because of pasta. "Initially, the longer noodle-type pastas were eaten with a long wooden spike called a punteruolo."

"Queen Elizabeth I owned forks for sweetmeats but chose to use her fingers instead, finding the spearing motion to be crude. In the 1970s, real men were said not to eat quiche. In the 1610s, they didn't use forks." "As late as 1897, British sailors were still demonstrating their manliness by eating without forks."

"The system of eating with chopsticks eliminates the main Western taboos at table, which chiefly have to do with managing the violence of the knife."

Margaret Visser writes: "To people who eat with their fingers, hands seem cleaner, warmer, more agile than cutlery. Hands are silent, sensitive to texture and temperature, and graceful -- provided, of course, that they have been properly trained." Which is exactly what I found when I spent 4 months in Sri Lanka. I liked eating with my fingers so much that I resented having to switch back to using a fork when I returned to Canada. The video clip above shows my grand-niece, who has facial paralysis (Moebius Syndrome), using a combination of fork and fingers to eat buckwheat soba.

In 1959, 96 percent of American households owned fridges, compared to 13 percent for Britain. "The American way of life was, to a very large extent made possible by refrigeration." The "British antipathy to fridges was not entirely rational." They considered them to be wasteful and decadent. Frigidaire noted that "Britain regarded ice as only an inconvenience of winter-time and cold drinks as an American mistake."

Fridges surpassed their "original purpose of cold storage, to keep food in optimum condition" and became general food storage units instead. Eggs, for example, are better stored out of the fridge in a cool climate "if you use them up quickly." "In America, unrefrigerated eggs are viewed as hazardous objects; and so they are, in the hotter states during the warmest months. A 2007 study from Japan found that when salmonella-infected eggs were stored at 50 F over six weeks, there was no growth in the bacteria. Even at 68 F, there was negligible bacterial growth. At temperatures of 77 F and above, however, salmonella growth was rampant."

My cousin Miro cooking wild boar stew in Slovakia in 2012.
Wilson covers kitchen design also. Between 1926 and 1930, more than 10,000 kitchens were built to architect Margarete Schutte-Lihotsky's specifications. These Frankfurt Kitchens are still famous. Robert Rotifer created a musical tribute to them, viewable online.

I happened to be reading three different books that overlapped in their subject areas. I was listening to Cooked (Michael Pollan) in audio and dipping into Salt Sugar Fat (Michael Moss) in paper, while I also had Consider the Fork in e-book on my iPod. The Maillard reaction, "an interaction between proteins and sugars at high heats that is responsible for many of the flavours we find most seductive," is one of the things that came up in all three books. Wilson briefly shares her experiences learning various cookery techniques, including roasting on an open fire, knife skills, and using sous-vide technology, which is similar to what Pollan does more fully in his memoir about learning to cook, Cooked.

Readalikes: At Home (Bill Bryson); The Table Comes First (Adam Gopnik); Salt (Mark Kurlansky); Cooked (Michael Pollan) and anything by Mary Roach. Also, since Wilson gives due consideration to the utensil called a spork, check out the delightful children's picturebook, Spork (by Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault).

No comments: