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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 (much the same shape today as in ancient times), Wilson engages in a long, enjoyable account of making pancakes. This is a favorite literary technique, taking the reader from her own kitchen, in this case moving from her sleepy-eyed Sunday morning self, grabbing ingredients and switching on her blender, back in time to the fourteenth century, where a recipe book for a well-heeled lady advises that the pancake mixture should be beaten “long enough to weary one person or two.” The very word “refinement,” she points out, an adjective of personal gentility, was originally a cooking term. Velvety sauces, triple-strained consommé, elaborately stuffed ravioli, all spoke of an army of minions working away out of sight, to please the palates of the rich. And so it has always been. Speaking out against elaborate Roman fare, Seneca wrote, “I like food that a household of slaves has not prepared, watching it with envy.”

A quote from Seneca does not feel out of place in this wide-ranging book, where such scholarship is always worn lightly. Bee Wilson has a Cambridge Ph.D., for studies of early French utopian socialism, and was a research fellow at St. John’s College Cambridge, working on the history of ideas before becoming an acclaimed cookery writer. Consider the Fork, an account of apparently everyday tools, is also an account of societal attitudes and indeed philosophies of living. Her first book, The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us (2004), was an exploration of the bee colony as a flexible metaphor for human society throughout history as well as a tribute to a superb natural food and fount of sweetness. Her second book, Swindled: From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee (2008), moved to the opposite pole with a history of adulterated food. She is at home with experts and is generous to those who have ventured on the subject before from perspectives different from her own. She also acknowledges her debt to the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, cofounded by Alan Davidson and Theodore Zeldin, and the Leeds History of Food Symposium, with its emphasis on historic equipment and techniques.

Wilson is therefore equally at ease writing about recipes or economics, manners or morals. Considering the fork itself, on one page she describes Emily Post’s etiquette of “zigzag” eating, cutting up the food then transferring the fork to the right hand, and on the next quotes Karl Marx’s observation in the Grundrisse, “The hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a different hunger from that which bolts down raw meat with the aid of hand, nail and tooth.” This jumping between such different authorities sounds dizzying, yet the excursions are always held tightly within an argument about the relationship of implements to time, place, and clusters of custom and ideas.

Cooking is a curious blend of science, aesthetics, and habit. It turns out that we are sometimes not too scientific or precise ourselves: Wilson’s near rage at the American practice of measuring things by cups is immensely entertaining. Using volume to measure solids is invariably affected by expansion and contraction and thus flour may be compressed or full of air, depending on the amount of sifting: “The cook dances around with sieves and spoons, fluffing and packing and heaping and sifting, all to achieve less accuracy than a pair of scales could provide in seconds.”

But the complex juncture of science and taste, in all senses, is best illustrated by the search for the perfect cooking pot: cast iron skillets (which rust), ceramic pots (which crack), toughened glass (no good over a flame), aluminium (fine for omelettes but not acids), and so on. Victorian copper pots were excellent for conducting heat, yet copper is poisonous in contact with food, especially acids, and many must have suffered when the neutral tin lining wore through. It is alarming to read that some cooks used copper specifically for its “greening powers,” making pickled green walnuts and green gherkins: “Suddenly, those shiny Victorian batteries de cuisine do not look quite so desirable.”

Following more modern experiments, Wilson steers us through the enameling techniques of Le Creuset in 1925 to the nonstick linings launched by Tefal in France in 1956, using PTFE, or polytetrafluoroethylene, a substance used since the late 1930s for coating industrial valves and fishing tackle, which prevents the food proteins from reacting with metal ions on the pan’s surface. Promising freedom from scrubbing and scouring, the first DuPont nonstick product in the United States was launched as the “Happy Pan.” Decades of use have proved that these admired coatings are short-lived and the health hazards alarming. So the search for the ideal pan continues.

Wilson explores different answers with rigorous care, from the “sandwiching” of different metals proposed by the engineer Chuck Lemme, to a concentration not on the pan, but the burner. Nathan Myhrvold, “chief technology officer for Microsoft before turning to food,” and author of the six-volume, two-thousand-page Modernist Cuisine (2011), would have us use small pans on big burners, to ensure the even spread of heat. Conducting her own Myhrvold-style experiment, Wilson sauteed some sliced zucchini in her smallest pan on the largest burner. The conduction certainly was powerful: the zucchini almost “jumped out of the pan. Then they burst into flames.” Since then, she writes ruefully, she has returned to her “imperfect mishmash of too-big pans and too-small burners.”

The pan saga epitomizes the combination that makes this book stand out: a passionate gathering of information, diligently communicated, and an amused realism that brings us safely down to earth, spared flaming zucchini. Tirelessly, Wilson narrates many other instances of scientists and engineers, often in cahoots with big business, setting out to solve kitchen problems, especially in inventing modern labor-saving devices like beaters and blenders. “What tulips were to Holland in the 1630s and Internet startups were to Seattle in the 1990s, eggbeaters were to the East Coast of the United States in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s,” Wilson says. Suddenly, hundreds of patents for beaters, jar shakers, and mixers were issued, but one cookery writer of the time, Marion Harland, declared that most of them were a waste of time: “‘After a few trials,’ Harland added, ‘the cook tossed the “bothering thing” into a dark corner of the closet, and improvised a better beater out of two silver forks, held dexterously together.’” It is heartening to read that Harland’s book, Common Sense in the Household, sold 100,000 copies.

Out of this flurry evolved Carl Sontheimer’s Cuisinart, then the Magimix and its food-processing progeny. All have their stories, like Sontheimer’s obsession with quenelles, which no existing blender could render smooth enough. I particularly like the manic quest of Ken Wood, an electrical engineer who left the Royal Air Force after the war, determined to combine the best elements of existing gadgets in a single machine. Taking an American can opener, a German potato peeler, and an Italian spaghetti maker and adding a mincer, beater, juicer, and liquidizer, he provided the British housewife with everything she needed. Looking back to the lost era of household minions, the Kenwood mixer was proudly advertised with the slogan “Your Servant, Madam!”

This was a deliberate, well-planned invention, but often there is a nice touch of serendipity to inventions in the kitchen, just as there is in cooking itself. One legendary instance of the accidental breakthrough is the invention of the microwave, invented in 1945 by Percy Spencer, an engineer with the Raytheon Company who was then working on military radar systems. Part of these systems involved the magnetron, “a vacuum tube for generating microwaves.” As Wilson rightly says, “various mythical stories are told of the moment when Spencer first noticed that the magnetron generated enough heat to cook.” One tale asserts that he was leaning against a tube that the waves passed through, when the chocolate in his pocket melted; another that he watched “as an egg exploded and cooked itself”; still another, that he left his sandwich on the magnetron by mistake and returned to find it cooked.

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