The Saga of the Flaming Zucchini

Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
Pierre Bonnard: Lunch at Grand-Lemps, 1899

The fork in Bee Wilson’s title is considered in detail, with companion implements like spoons and chopsticks, only toward the end of her eloquent and information-packed book on the technology of cooking and eating. If the phrase “consider the lilies” hums in your mind, that is entirely apt, as we learn that the modern spoon, if not the fork, arrived in Britain at the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, with a new design of the handle, “the trifid,” or trefoil, “an echo of the fleur-de-lis, the stylized lily associated with French kingship.” Even a simple implement can thus carry a political or religious resonance: in the years before the Restoration, when Britain was a Commonwealth, the Puritans had lopped off the decorative “knops” on the ends of spoon handles, just as they lopped off the king’s head, preferring a plain, shallow, egg-shaped bowl. In the kitchen, nothing is innocent of history, not even a spoon or a fork.

The biblical lilies, of course, “toil not, neither do they spin,” but a running theme in Bee Wilson’s book is the intensive toil involved in past eras of cookery, from the date of the earliest archaeological finds. And because she tackles her complicated subject by looking at different implements or tasks—“Knife,” “Fire,” “Measure,” “Grind”—rather than attempting a chronological approach, each chapter is a discursive journey from past to present, across continents and cultures, opening our eyes to the wealth of material in our own kitchens.

Before the advent of cooking pots, ten thousand years ago, no one who had lost their teeth could survive long: there are no toothless adult skeletons. You had to chew to live: raw meat, raw vegetables, raw roots. The first potters saved these lives: with bowls that could be put on a fire, people could make soups, or mushes, or a porridgy mess. But another tool, some sort of crushing or grinding device, was also needed to reduce tough, fibrous roots and grains in husks to an edible consistency. The earliest grinding stones date back 20,000 years, notably a basalt grinding stone found near the Sea of Galilee, beside traces of wild barley, suggesting, perhaps, experiments in baking, in making bread.

Many similar stones are found dating from ten thousand years later, in Neolithic times, when settled farming began and cereals were planted. Egyptian figurines, for example, show women pounding grain against a stone. This task, Wilson reminds us, became part of women’s lives across the world:

Among the Lugbara people of Uganda, a woman is still typically buried with the smaller of her two grindstones. It symbolizes the fact the majority of her existence has been expended on the mindless, repetitive—but essential—action of grinding cereals for her family’s nourishment.

Lest one should think that such labor was confined to agricultural, subsistence economies, or to “primitive” long-enduring tools like querns, mortars, and pestles…

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