I enjoy reading a good biography now and then. My current reading material, “Consider the Fork,” (Basic Books, $26.99), isn’t the history of a person, but of cooking and eating tools. Written by British food writer and historian Bee Wilson, it shares the evolution of those simple forks, spoons, knives, pots, measuring cups, and other implements that we take for granted.
It’s interesting to understand how those humble tools shaped today’s food culture while providing sustenance through centuries.
We’ve definitely come a long way from the sharpened flint used in the Stone Age to hack away at raw meat. Here are some of the tidbits that I’ve learned:
• The fork in the road. Although forks were used anciently for roasting, the idea of using them as an eating utensil wasn’t generally accepted throughout Europe until the 1700s. The fact that they resembled a devil’s pitchfork didn’t help.
Wilson writes that the first true fork on historical record was a two-pronged gold one used by a Byzantine princess in the 11th century. She was damned by St. Peter Damian for her “excessive delicacy” in preferring such a rarefied implement instead of eating with her hands.
In 1605, the French satirist Thomas Artus published a book mocking the effeminate ways of King Henri III, noting that his courtiers “never touch meat with their hands but with forks.”
Queen Elizabeth I owned forks for sweetmeats, but chose to use her fingers instead, finding the spearing motion to be crude.
But due to the fork’s usefulness in eating pasta, the Italians adopted it before any other country in Europe. And thus it finally became the polite thing to use, instead of dirtying your fingers with food or dirtying your food with your fingers.”
• A cut above. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, people had their own personal eating knives, usually kept in a sheath dangling from their belts. Wilson writes that people would no more think of eating with another person’s knife than we would brush our teeth with a stranger’s toothbrush today. The personal knife was a multitasker, as it was equally handy for chopping food or in defense against enemies.
But these blades weren’t limited to swashbuckling men; women also had personal knives. A painting from 1640 by H.H. Kluber depicts a rich Swiss family preparing to eat a meal. The daughters have silvery knives dangling from their dresses.
• The scoop on spoons. Spoons have a long evolution. In England, the 18th-century aristocracy loved roasted bone marrow and devised a series of specialized silver spoons and scoops for eating it. In Victorian times, there were specialized spoons for all kinds of foods — a special aspic spoon, tomato spoon, sauce spoon, and olive spoon, and different spoons for eating cream soups or bouillons. The serving staff had to be particularly astute to know the subtle differences in proper spoon etiquette.
Although modern-day Americans are more casual about utensils than say, the British aristocracy, there’s still some social anxiety when you sit down at a posh dinner and see an array of various spoons, knives and forks.
The teaspoon came into existence when the English began adding milk to their tea in the second half of the 17th century. Now it’s both a measurement and a basic eating utensil in the United States, where tea isn’t nearly as popular as in England.
• Measuring up. One thing that sets American cooking apart is the use of the measuring cup. Most of the rest of the world measures dry ingredients by weight on a kitchen scale — and Wilson makes it clear that she feels the weight system is superior.
The consistent measuring system of cups, half-cups and so on was championed by Fannie Farmer of the Boston Cooking School. Up until then, many recipes would specify varying measurements such as a “walnut-size ball of dough,” or “an egg-size lump of butter,” or “a finger-length of marzipan.”
• Tools and fuels. Cooking tools evolved differently, depending on the geographic area. Wilson pointed out that the wok became the basic Chinese cooking technique due to fuel poverty. Every meal had to be founded on frugal calculations about how to extract the maximum taste from the minimum input of energy.
In contrast, England’s roast beef reflected a densely wooded landscape, and plenty of grass for grazing animals. The English could cook their beef over a blazing fire, throwing on as many logs as it took.
Wilson said the decade between the end of World War I and the start of the Depression saw the most dramatic changes in the patterns of household work in America. In 1917, only 25 percent of households in America were on the electric grid. By 1930, there were 80 percent with electricity. Electric companies had a huge investment, and thus encouraged the purchase of that new invention, the refrigerator.
With all of the many technological improvements in the kitchen, historians claim that the amount of time American women spend on housework, including cooking, remained constant since the mid-1920s. Yes, even though we have dishwashers, food processors, garbage disposals, etc., we are working as hard as ever.
Wilson explains it this way: “You buy an electric mixer, which makes it quick and easy to make cakes. And so you feel you ought to make cakes, whereas before you were happy to buy them …. not to mention the hours you spend washing the bowl and attachments and mopping the flour that splatters everywhere it mixes.”
Sometimes we have too many handy-dandy dicers, ricers and slicers for our own good. Finding, cleaning and storing them can take up a lot of our time and energy.
Wilson points out, “When you reach the point where you can’t open the utensils drawer because it is so jammed with rolling pins, graters and fish slicers, it’s time to shed a few technologies.”
Valerie Phillips blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com.