They live in our cutlery drawer and we taste their tines every day. When it comes to eating, the fork is taken for granted. How would we manage without one?
Consider the Fork: A History of Invention in the Kitchen
by Bee Wilson
Particular Books, 416pp, £20
But, it turns out, we didn’t always feel this way. So says author, columnist and food historian Bee Wilson in Consider the Fork: A History of Invention in the Kitchen, which covers the relatively unexamined subject of culinary gadgetry.
She argues that, before this utensil became commonplace sometime in the 17th century (or earlier in Italy), it was ridiculed and even considered obscene. It was centuries before forks were completely integrated into our lives. As Wilson explains: “At any given time, we do not necessarily get the tools that would – in absolute terms – make our food better and our lives easier. We get those that we can afford and those that our society can accept.” This may be why, as detailed in the Measure chapter, the US method of measuring ingredients by the cup persists.
Throughout the book, it becomes clear that, as with the fork, any new invention seems to go through a long period of rejection, before it is finally accepted. Even a staple like the knife, which predates the use of fire in cooking, has gone from double-edged and efficient cutting device to something blunter and more impotent.
A relatively recent gadget – the microwave – has been sneered at since its design in the Fifties, until recently, when modernist cooks have made its use rather cool. On the other hand, the inventor of the now indispensable can, Nicolas Appert, died in a pauper’s grave.
Wilson’s earlier publications, The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us (2004) and Swindled: From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee, the Dark History of the Food Cheats (2008) tackled slightly narrower subject matter. Her themes in Consider the Fork can sound exhaustive.
Those familiar with Wilson’s Kitchen Thinker column in the Telegraph will know she has a knack for curating fact. Before you can get tired of reading about spitjacks in the Fire chapter, the subject matter hops into a page or two on tandoor ovens, then you find out about thermodynamics, cast-iron ranges and the blaze that set off the Great Fire of London. Throughout the book, there are well-judged measures of historical information, alongside anecdotes and a touch of science.
Oh, and anthropology. Consider the Fork’s Knife chapter references the work of US anthropologist Charles Loring Brace, who found that the human overbite only emerged 200 to 250 years ago, along with the adoption of the knife and fork method of eating. Before then we used the “stuff and cut” style – ie chomp down on something, then tear, or slice with a knife, to detach a chewable chunk.
“Once people start cutting up their food very small and popping the morsels into their mouths, the clamping function of the incisors ceases, and the incisors continue to erupt until the top layer no longer meets the bottom later: an overbite,” says Wilson. “We generally think our bodies are fundamental and unchanging, while things like table manners are superficial: we might change our manners from time to time but we can’t be changed by them. Brace turned this idea on its head. Our supposedly natural overbite – this seeming basic aspect of modern human anatomy is actually a product of how we behave at table.”
It seems it’s not what we eat, but how we eat it.