Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"Consider the Fork": an Aladdin's cave of food lore

Head cook Mrs Patmore has the heebie jeebies every time a new labor-saving device is introduced into her post-war kitchen in the fourth series of Downton Abbey. Eventually she gets over the shock of the new and the attendant fear that she'll be made redundant by the march of time — after the younger members of the staff eagerly pounce on the newfangled gadgets and show her how it's done (sound familiar, baby boomers?) As regards the food in the show, which is often a feast for the eyes, it has been revealed that the meals are presented just as they would have been in that period. Food consultant Lisa Heathcote says that she draws on period books such as Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management for inspiration. "Downstairs" one must portray the staff whipping up syllabubs and souffl├ęs, baking cakes, and poaching fish, while "Upstairs" the right "service" is required in both senses of the word, with footmen serving the family and guests while the table settings gleam and glint in perfect order.
I wouldn't be surprised if Heathcote also consulted Bee Wilson's wondrous Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, which is like stumbling on an Aladdin's cave of food lore. (In a previous blog, I did a quiz challenge with facts cherry picked from the book.) The topics she considers are both broad and deep, spanning human history and myriad cultures. As the New York Times wrote, “Wilson’s supple, sometimes playful style … cleverly disguises her erudition in fields from archaeology and anthropology to food science.” She moves from ancient cooking done above and below ground to huge (and dangerous) medieval / renaissance fireplaces on which myriad types of food preparation were done (and which were often a home's sole source of heat), to the modern evolution of the wood-burning, gas, and electric stoves. In the past, Wilson writes, a fire from an open hearth “served to warm a house, heat water for washing, and cook dinner. For millennia, all cooking was roasting in one form or another.” The British in particular roasted enormous haunches of meat on spits in front of a roaring hearth. Before the invention of gravity jacks, children and even dogs turned the spits (with short legs and a long body, they were specially bred to “trundle around” in a large wheel connected to the spit with a pulley.)
Two of Downton's younger generation of kitchen staff. Daisy (right) is especially keen on new devices like the electric toaster and mixer. Love the molds on the wall!
In a recent episode of Downton Abbey, Mrs Patmore had an anxiety attack when Her Ladyship introduced an electric refrigerator into her subterranean domain. Little does Mrs P know what a boon it will prove to be. “The efficient home refrigerator entirely changed the way food—getting it, cooking it, eating it—fitted into people’s lives,” writes Wilson. “For much of the twentieth century, American visitors to Britain found that everything was the wrong temperature: cold, drafty rooms; warm beer and milk; rancid butter and sweating cheese.” Wilson also observes that designers now organize kitchens around the “hard, chilly lines” of the refrigerator rather than the warmth of the stove, with its associations of home and hearth. “When we can’t think what else to do, we open the fridge door and stare into it long and hard as if it will provide the answer to life’s great questions.” (Who hasn't done that? … as if its contents might have improved since the last time you looked!)
Here are more of Wilson's thoughts re food history, from an NPR interview on Consider the Fork.
Cooking implements: the long view For me, the great beginning of cookery is the invention of the pot …10,000 years ago. And I think pots and pans are one of the many inventions in our kitchen that we don't even recognize as being inventions, because they've been around for so long…. Things like the mortar and pestle, which is very similar in form today to how it would have been in ancient Rome or ancient Mesopotamia even…. Colanders exist in Pompeii and Herculaneum — and beautiful ancient Greek and Roman frying pans. So some things have remained constant. Nothing really does the job of a wooden spoon better … which is why perhaps it hasn't been replaced. On the microwave The microwave oven is a phenomenal invention, but it had the misfortune to be …  marketed at just that point in history when TV dinners and processed food and all of those supermarket meals were also taking off. So it was seen as a device merely for heating food up. Very good home cooks that I know feel really hostile towards the microwave oven in a way that I think they don't towards many other cooking tools. And actually, its true culinary potential is only now really being recognized by the modernist cooks, people like Nathan Myhrvold, who see it as a fantastic tool for melting chocolate, caramelizing sugar, steaming vegetables. On the nature of recipes For most of history, recipes were aide-memoires …. memory devices for people who already know how to cook….. Whereas Fannie Farmer had grown up not knowing how to cook herself: she learned relatively late in life, and she never took it for granted. And so her recipes, for the first time … teach her readers from scratch how you can make something if you've never done it before and how it can be reproducible in the same way that a scientific experiment might be.

“Traditional histories of technology do not pay much attention to food. They tend to focus on hefty industrial and military developments: wheels and ships, gunpowder and telegraphs, airships and radio. When food is mentioned, it is usually in the context of agriculture—systems of tillage and irrigation—rather than the domestic work of the kitchen. But there is just as much invention in a nutcracker as in a bullet.”

Or a vegetable peeler, I might add!


  1. Reminded of "The Owl & The Pussycat", I ran again across the runcible spoon.
    Wiki could only suggest what it might mean--a slotted spoon, or a spork. It apparently was coined out of thin air by Lear.
    So it presents the unique opportunity of a memorable word that looks legit (unlike some the OED has been touting on Twitter). But it lacks a definite meaning.
    The DG is a recognized authority, and may designate an object to fit the word.
    Do you prefer "slotted spoon" (I've always disliked that name) or the spork?

    I don't believe it is necessary to be consistent with "runcible cat". Let's save that for another day!

    1. A grapefruit spoon? O, there's a need for a name among spoons!

    2. too too true! I have a set myself. runcible -- what a lovely word; it just rolls off the tongue. "spork" gives me the willies!

    3. gioconda, a runcible ball-playerJanuary 30, 2014 at 11:48 PM

      Great idea! A spork is designed to do 2 things at once, but doesn't do either very well--which would make a definite and necessary word.
      I dub thee Runcible--which meaneth "designed to be multifunctional, but ending up multi-inept".