Profound, Entertaining Journey into Cooking History

Article excerpt

This is an amazing journey into cooking technology from prehistory to the present that is at once profound and entertaining.

Author Bee Wilson, a veteran British food writer, intrigues throughout by blending anthropology, archeology, history and science with witty personal anecdotes about her own cooking experiences.

Her purpose is to reveal the hidden intelligence in the apparently simple technology in our kitchens, and to explain why it matters -- it is totally enmeshed with what we are biologically and intellectually, and our social, economic and cultural systems, as well as our everyday sustenance and survival.

That the discussion is thoroughly researched and documented in easy to follow format reflects Wilson's impressive background. With a doctorate in history from Cambridge, Wilson is a lauded U.K. food critic, columnist and author.

Her previous books include Sandwich: A Global History (2010), Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud (2008) and The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us (2006).

In Consider the Fork, Wilson traces how humans have always used invention to devise better ways to feed themselves.

There is a technology behind everything we eat. It does not have to be electronic or futuristic. It can be a fork, a pot, a measuring cup, or a particular way of applying heat to the food.

She points out that skeletal evidence from archeology suggests that no one survived into adulthood without teeth before the invention of pottery about 10,000 years ago. Early ancestors who lost all their teeth simply couldn't chew and would starve. The cooking pot saved them by enabling people to make food mushy-liquid, edible without chewing.

A more startling example is Wilson's reference to anthropologist Richard Wrangham on how harnessing fire and the consequent art of cooking enabled us to evolve from apes to Homo erectus.

In making most foods far easier to digest and releasing more of the nutritive value, cooking gave us better food, enhanced our physical development, and helped make our brains uniquely large, providing the body with a brilliant human mind.

Historic developments come alive as Wilson draws on her thorough research and quick wit to weave throughout her text many details of social and economic context, place and time, as well as stories of the people involved.

For example, we easily appreciate why Italy was the first European culture to start using forks, which were considered odd in the rest of Europe until the 17th century.

The lively description seems to seat us right at the table watching Italian diners spiking and twirling noodle-lengths of the specific pastas she names. …