How Implements Affect Our Eating

Article excerpt

Byline: Philip Kopper, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

As the tone of its main title implies, Consider the Fork is casual fare, a tapas bar rather than the banquet suggested in the subtitle.

Bee Wilson calls this an exploration of the way the implements we use in the kitchen affect what we eat, how we eat and what we feel about what we eat. Food is the great human universal ... Some live without sex, that other fact of life. But there is no getting beyond food, which is fuel, a habit, a higher pleasure, and a base need, the thing that gives pattern to our days or that gnaws us with its lack. Anorexics may try to escape it, but for as long as you live, hunger is inescapable. We all eat. Yet the ways in which we have satisfied this basic human need have varied dramatically at different times and places. The things that make the biggest difference are the tools we use.

Given the wealth of material found in human history - even historical culinary technology - Ms. Wilson offers curious nuggets. Her thesis boils down (no pun intended) to the notion that we are not what we eat so much as how we cook it. Before the invention of pottery, she reports, proto-people who lost their teeth quickly starved. Chewing was a necessary skill. Pottery enabled the primitive processing of tough foodstuffs into substances like porridge or gruel that could be consumed through toothless mouths. The first nouvelle cuisine featured gummable fare.

But the soft regime has its downside, as dietary researchers would discover many millenniums later. In our own time and place, it behooves more people to fend off obesity than starvation. Lab rats on diets of soft pellets get fatter faster than their confreres who are fed hard pellets, because consuming hard food consumes more calories.

While giving pottery its due, Ms. Wilson overlooks an equally intriguing culinary development - basketry. In the New World at least, some peoples wove vessels out of grasses so tightly that they could hold water. Toss in a hot stone and the water heats to boiling.

Looking further back in prehistory, Ms. Wilson acknowledges Richard Wrangham's fascinating thesis in Catching the Fire (reviewed in these pages three years ago) that the first ancestral humans to stumble on cooking per se nourished themselves better than their tartare-eating cousins. De facto cooking made food easier to digest, which gave these consumers an adaptive or evolutionary advantage. Other primates, especially any vegans climbing down out of the trees, had to spend more hours just chewing, rather than inventing the wheel or painting pictures on cave walls.

Speaking of chewing, Ms. Wilson unearths a theory that correlates the development of our overbite in modern times with culinary hardware, i.e. chopsticks and cutlery. Countering the idea that incisors were used to sever mouthfuls of meat from bigger hunks, she argues that incisors evolved to grip food, enabling the eater to tear off bits. …