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!|
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.
Or a vegetable peeler, I might add!
“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.”