CONSIDER THE FORK: A HISTORY OF HOW WE COOK AND EAT
By Bee Wilson
Basic Books, $26.99
REVIEWED BY PHILIP KOPPER
As the tone of its main title implies, "Consider the Fork" is casual fare, a tapas bar rather than the banquet suggested in the subtitle.
Bee Wilson calls this "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. Food is the great human universal Some live without sex, that other fact of life. But there is no getting beyond food, which is fuel, a habit, a higher pleasure, and a base need, the thing that gives pattern to our days or that gnaws us with its lack. Anorexics may try to escape it, but for as long as you live, hunger is inescapable. We all eat. Yet the ways in which we have satisfied this basic human need have varied dramatically at different times and places. The things that make the biggest difference are the tools we use."
Given the wealth of material found in human history -- even historical culinary technology -- Ms. Wilson offers curious nuggets. Her thesis boils down (no pun intended) to the notion that we are not what we eat so much as how we cook it. Before the invention of pottery, she reports, proto-people who lost their teeth quickly starved. "Chewing was a necessary skill." Pottery enabled the primitive processing of tough foodstuffs into substances like porridge or gruel that could be consumed through toothless mouths. The first nouvelle cuisine featured gummable fare.
But the soft regime has its downside, as dietary researchers would discover many millenniums later. In our own time and place, it behooves more people to fend off obesity than starvation. Lab rats on diets of soft pellets get fatter faster than their confreres who are fed hard pellets, because consuming hard food consumes more calories.
While giving pottery its due, Ms. Wilson overlooks an equally intriguing culinary development -- basketry. In the New World at least, some peoples wove vessels out of grasses so tightly that they could hold water. Toss in a hot stone and the water heats to boiling.
Looking further back in prehistory, Ms. Wilson acknowledges Richard Wrangham's fascinating thesis in "Catching the Fire" (reviewed in these pages three years ago) that the first ancestral humans to stumble on cooking per se nourished themselves better than their tartare-eating cousins. De facto cooking made food easier to digest, which gave these consumers an adaptive or evolutionary advantage. Other primates, especially any vegans climbing down out of the trees, had to spend more hours just chewing, rather than inventing the wheel or painting pictures on cave walls.
Speaking of chewing, Ms. Wilson unearths a theory that correlates the development of our overbite in modern times with culinary hardware, i.e. chopsticks and cutlery. Countering the idea that incisors were used to sever mouthfuls of meat from bigger hunks, she argues that incisors evolved to grip food, enabling the eater to tear off bits. When gripping this way, the upper and lower front teeth meet, which keeps them from growing (as in rodents). Once we began to cut our food into small pieces, the upper front teeth were not impeded but continued to grow into our overbite. Her authority here is "Professor Charles Loring Brace (born 1930), a remarkable American anthropologist" who is better known for Neanderthal studies.
Focusing on culinary tools, the author hopscotches through human history around the globe, recording both strides and stumbles. A chronic shortage of fuel led Asians to develop cuisine based on meat cut into very small pieces, which cook much faster than joints, thus the invention of the tou, a knife that dices. The best beef she ever ate was roasted large on a kind of spit that was tended in medieval England by a "turnspit," a naked boy. By 1567, turnspits were treadmills driven by caged dogs, later by geese; which would waddle longer. These devices lasted in American restaurants into the 19th century, when an animal rights lobbyist led a successful campaign, until he "found dogs [were] replaced by young black children."
One great mystery of our ancestral past is the source of the proverbial "staff of life," bread. Working backward, bread is what comes from a hot oven (or off a flat rock) after it was placed there as dough, which was made by mixing water with flour, which does not grow wild but comes from the heads of certain grasses which have been freed from their husks and ground to powder. Thus somebody, once upon a time, took it into their heads to take the tops from grass stems, beat the husks off, grind the kernels fine, then moisten the powder and subject it to dry heat. Presto: bread. How did our ancestors figure that out?
That question goes unanswered by Ms. Wilson, "an acclaimed food historian," and a Brit that a doctorate from Cambridge. Curiously, the publisher included an extra prefatory item in the book's bound galleys (the paperback distributed to reviewers before publication). In a faux letter addressed "Dear Friends," Basic Books' publishing director identifies the author as the child of two literary heavyweights. Perhaps that gives her license to express more hyperbole than fact, as in the statement "There is just as much invention in a nutcracker as in a bullet." But less food for thought.
• Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press, writes about history and culture.