The truth, as with most scientific endeavors, is less exciting, a tale of careful, methodical observations over time by an entire team. Yet an air of scientific mystery still hangs over our most-used modern appliance, a tinge of men in white coats creating something we cannot understand, and which is therefore slightly sinister. I am grateful to Bee Wilson for providing the clearest account I have read of exactly how a microwave works:
Fat, sugar and water molecules in the food attract the microwaves, causing them to jump around very fast. These vibrations produce heat within the food. Beyond 4 to 5 cm, the heat spreads by conduction to the rest of the food—just as it would in a frying pan.
Hardly Frankenstein in the kitchen. But many people remain suspicious, partly, perhaps, because they can’t feel the heat—it is one step too far away from the ancient fire.
Modern advances in kitchen technology still stride onward, to dehydrators, Anti-Griddles, centrifuges, and Pacojets that can apparently make iced desserts in twenty seconds by “precision spinning.” In the latest sous-vide machines, food is vacuum-packed in special bags then hung in a low-temperature bath of water, sometimes for hours. This method produces wonderfully tender meat and delicately fresh vegetables—but where is the delicious aroma of cooking?
Bee Wilson does not offer a Whig history of cookery, a tale of perpetual improvement through technological advance. Many once-alluring inventions—like juicers and melon ballers—are passing fads, filling kitchens with implements that soon prove redundant and are shoved to the back of the cupboard. Wilson’s book, however, is also concerned with what we have lost, and the compromises that have inevitably been made. Few people would look back nostalgically to the labor-intensive, smoky, sweltering kitchens where everything was cooked over an open fire, but Wilson has spent many hours with Ivan Day, “one of the last men in Britain who is prepared to build his life around an open fire.” In his Lake District farmhouse with its seventeenth-century fireplace, Day cooks spit-roasted meat according to old recipes, using old tools like a “vertical bottle-jack” for mutton, and carefully basting sirloins of beef, larded with pork fat and marinated in shallots, lemon, and herbs, as they cooked on a vast spit, secured with “holdfasts.”
Examining this further, the English love for roast beef was not simply a question of taste, but of resources: unlike many other countries England was not only green and pleasant, with pasturage for grazing animals, but densely wooded, rich in firewood. Joints could easily be roasted for hours, the fire fueled with more logs as the time went by. And once again, rich in kitchen labor: boys by the score, with aching arms and burning brows, dressed in greasy, scanty clothes or even naked, must have turned those spits in the houses of Tudor grandees.
The first great revolution in British life was the coming of enclosed brick chimneys and cast-iron grates, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the eighteenth century the turnspits were replaced by the newly invented mechanical jacks, driven by weights, and by smoke-jacks, where the upward draft of the fire itself propelled a vane to turn the wheel. All this disappeared, slowly, with the coming of the closed kitchen range. Succulent though that meat may have been, it is hard to regret the change. In time, too, the solid-fuel range was replaced by gas—the first gas cookers were as controversial as the microwave—and then, in the early twentieth century, by electricity.
Fire was hard to control, indeed extremely dangerous. The fire of London in 1666 was caused by embers smoldering beneath the edge of the hearth in a London baker’s shop, and for centuries, in kitchens big and small, “women were particularly at risk, on account of the terrible combination of billowing skirts, trailing sleeves, and open fires with bubbling cauldrons hung over them.” Chip-pan fires in the UK—frying potatoes in deep fat in an open basket—still account for fifty deaths and 4,600 injuries each year. Wilson often reminds us just how dangerous cooking can be, with the risk of burns, poisons, and inadvertent slashes from sharp knives. The author’s own horrible experience with a mandolin, slicing a sliver of finger among the cucumber for her sandwiches, makes one shudder. Cook’s knives, as she notes, have never been far from weapons. They are the oldest tool we have: stone knives found in Ethiopia are over 2.6 million years old, and today’s modern chefs all have their favorites, the sharper the better.
In medieval and Renaissance Europe everyone carried their own knife, slung from their belt—a hunting knife for a man, an elegant silvery knife for the women. A whole repertoire and rhetoric of carving developed, yet the double-bladed, pointed knife could still be used to pick one’s teeth or trim one’s nails as well as cut one’s meat. The sense of danger at table remained: it was the wary and wise Sun King, Louis XIV, who in 1669 forbade cutlers to make pointed dinner knives, a key step on a “civilizing” process of table manners.
But if basic knives are universal, they have developed their own forms in different cultures, like the fan-shaped Inuit ulu, or the light, dimple-bladed Japanese santoku, or the Chinese cleaver-shaped tou, used for everything from chopping firewood and gutting fish to whittling chopsticks—and settling scores. These cross-cultural comparisons are one of the most enlightening aspects of Wilson’s book, often cutting into Western prejudices and assumptions. The disapproval of eating with fingers, as a sign of slovenliness or lack of manners, or a restriction on the kind of food one can eat is shown, for example, to be nonsense on all counts.
Far from being unclean, cleanliness is built into the meal that comes with no utensils, whether this be a royal feast in the time of Henry VIII, a Roman banquet, or an Arab meal in the desert. In Middle Eastern tradition, a maid would bring a copper basin and flask, pouring out perfumed water, for guests to wash their hands before a meal. In India even a shared bowl was thought unclean, and the diners’ hands were each showered with fresh water. Particular customs dictate which fingers should be used, not the left hand (used for toileting) and properly and only the finger and thumb of the right hand. It is rude to grab, and—unlike knife and fork users—equally rude to collect the next fingerful before finishing eating the first. The only limit to what you eat, Wilson notes, is temperature: the food cannot be too hot and the meat must be tender enough to pull apart. The fingers become nimble, agile; the meal is utterly polite. The hands themselves are our first tool.
Between each chapter in Consider the Fork, short, bravura riffs consider particular implements like the rice cooker, toaster, egg timer, or nutmeg grater. The last of these is on coffee, where Wilson notes the multiplicity of devices used through time, from the Turkish ibriks used since the sixteenth century to the hand-held espresso machine of today, and the Cona coffeemaker beloved of the 1960s. But the latest move, she decides, is low-tech, back to the French press and filter. This applies to other tools too. The “kitchen of tomorrow,” gleaming and high-tech, still has its allure. But today, surrounded by our gadgets, many Western consumers move backward to find their ideal.
Instead of smooth sauces we like crunch and bite, demonstrating the town dweller’s nostalgia for something homemade, rough, and authentic. We go for tools like the simple, nice-to-handle ergonomic vegetable peeler and we still—to the great irritation of avant-garde molecular gastronomists—use pots and pans, colanders and pestles, as our forebears did centuries ago. Even with granite worktops and dishwashers, we like to see old-fashioned pans and spoons and scrapers hanging on the wall, conjuring up a tame, smoke-free version of a farmhouse kitchen. When the kitchen became a separate room, so that heat and smells did not spread through the house, this was regarded as a life-changing breakthrough, but now many people have taken down that wall. The kitchen, with all its tools, ancient and modern, is now back in its places as the heart, if not the hearth, of the house.