BOOKS OCTOBER 16, 2012
by Bee Wilson
Basic Books, 327 pp., $26.99
IN RECENT YEARS, a rash of food historians have chosen the prism of a single ingredient to explore everything from empire building to environmental decline. Books in this category—prominent examples include Cod from 1998, Salt from 2003, Extra Virginity from 2011, and Bee Wilson’s own 2006 debut, The Hive (which chronicled the life and times of honey)—are reductive by nature. They delineate their territory by the mechanism (or gimmick) of their construction: if history doesn’t brush up against the fish or the seasoning that is their focus, then these writers are not interested.
Wilson’s latest, Consider the Fork, takes a decidedly more scenic route. It is a wide-ranging historical road map of the influence of culture on cuisine. The elaborate array of specialized French knives, for example, reflects a world of artful culinary opulence, while the all-purpose cleaver used in Chinese cooking (the tou) indicates a society formed around the principle of “minimax”—lowest input, highest yield—which creates peerless flavors from chronic scarcity. By noting that aristocrats (from many cultures) cultivated a taste for smooth pastes that required exhaustive grinding in a mortar and pestle, she highlights a class dynamic that persisted from Roman times more or less until the invention of the food processor.
Wilson’s approach makes for a book that meanders from one digression to the next, gathering thematic weight as it goes, rather than building to a point. The book is densely, prodigiously researched, but its bright tone is less the scholar’s than the enthusiast’s. The reader can imagine her, utensil in hand, exhorting us: Consider! (At one point she does, indeed, consider the fork—a relatively new tool, as it turns out.) She rhapsodizes about the humble as well as the grand; she spends more pages dissecting the intricacies of egg-beating technology than she does lauding the invention of the gas-powered stove.
All this can feel a bit tedious to a reader who doesn’t share her passions. I admit to skimming a section about spoon shapes and to groaning when she detoured into an explanation of ergonomic peelers just ten pages from the end of the book. But most of the time, it is easy and delightful to get swept up in Wilson’s zeal. And the rejection of a traditional narrative arc does not indicate a lack of structure; rather, the book’s horizontal shape is a choice that suits its material. It is fluid yet engaging, just like a good conversation over a pan of sizzling vegetables.
Though Wilson does not make a linear argument, nearly every one of her anecdotes evokes a central question: how should we feel about the inexorable march of progress? Chefs, divided over whether cooking is an art or a science, disagree on this point. Wilson expresses some nostalgia for the past, when cooking required knowledge that has been lost to the proliferation of gadgets. Before the advent of electric ovens, a good cook could gauge the heat of a fire just by looking at the patterns in the flame. Before the introduction of measuring cups, recipes were guidelines, and of no use to people who were not already familiar with the quantities required for various concoctions. Wilson gives us countless instances of technological innovations—such as thermostats, or cups that measure quantities like “smidge,” “pinch,” and “drop”—that have replaced thought and diminished artistry.
But Wilson is no Luddite. She encourages us to appreciate the unsung abilities of the microwave. She describes the laboratory-like apparatus of the sous-vide machine—“the food in its plastic looks alarmingly like medical samples, or brains in formaldehyde”—then raves about the textures and flavors it achieves—“sous-vide food is extraordinary, even hyperreal … Sous-vide apples and quinces, cooked for two hours at precisely 181.4°F, were deeply fragrant and golden … like the essence of autumn.”
Technology, Wilson says, is no better or worse than its inventors. It is “the art of the possible … driven by human desire”—the manifestation of what we imagine, tempered by our limitations. In such passages, the book prods at one of the fundamental dilemmas that historical writing seeks to illuminate: have we evolved to better meet our desires, or have we lost something in the pursuit of progress? This is an old question—tradition versus change, sentiment versus science.
Wilson raises these questions, but she does not attempt to reduce her vast research into a single answer. This allows her to treat the history of cooking as what it is—a series of fits and starts, and brilliant ideas—without trying to compress it into a single narrative. Some changes constitute real gains, she tells us, like the discovery of iron, a metal far superior to bronze. (Better still, in recent decades, the American company All-Clad has learned to combine multiple metals into one evenly conductive, almost magical pan.) But most developments simply reflect our culture’s shifting preoccupations: cupcakes, tangy frozen yogurt, salted caramel, foie gras doughnuts—the next trend is cooking at GoogaMooga. To make these anecdotes into a story of progress—or decline—Wilson would sacrifice the honesty of her portrayal, and deny the reader the wonderful whimsy of our past preoccupations. (Some mechanical spit-roasts in Elizabethan England were powered by geese or small dogs in a wheel.) By presenting the past rather than shaping it conceptually, she tacitly puts forward an unusual attitude toward history: micro over macro, reality over coherence.
This is arguably a more honest and surprising approach to history than the alternative, single-lens method, and Wilson’s style is also better suited to its material. For example, Wilson makes much of the reorientation of the kitchen from hearth to refrigerator—an important clue that the technical is replacing the homey, but a subtle shift, not a global cataclysm. Cooking may be an appropriate realm for thinking big thoughts—it is one of the only universal human experiences—but it is not the right arena for the absolute and the grandiose.
More than on anything else, Wilson takes a stance on this. The only trends she openly disapproves of are those that are too rigid, too high-minded, to be imposed on food. She expresses respect for the literally microscopic preoccupations of molecular gastronomy, but she doubts that the movement will make a lasting impression on the way we cook. “It would be exhausting to live like this, always questioning everything … Modernist cooking can entertain, but can it nourish like a home-cooked meal can?”
Similarly, Wilson disparages the ideal of the “perfect” kitchen, in which buying a new pan means throwing out the old set. Kitchens do not need to present a coherent image of their owners, she says. They should mirror us in all our complexities and contradictions, bringing together the things that make us feel at home—a pot from college, grandma’s tableware—and the things that fill us with the excitement of possibility—a brand new espresso maker or sous-vide machine.
Cooking is full of paradoxes. It is art and science, ancient and modern, fundamental and trivial, easy and difficult. Wilson presents these dissonances in their entirety, making no show of resolving them. In the end, her tone suggests that she writes about food for the same reason we read about it: sheer pleasure and lighthearted fascination. The big questions are just seasoning for the soup.
Nora Caplan-Bricker is an editorial assistant at The New Republic. Follow: @ncaplanbricker