By: Bee Wilson
Review by Ellen Ireland
2012 Basic Books, New York, NY hardcover $26.99 (also available as an ebook)
When I look forward to reading a new food book it is usually because I am enthusiastic about the topic; in this case I am not so much crazy about the topic as I am about the author. Bee Wilson won me over a few years ago when I read “Swindled”. Her writing in that book was engaging, well paced and well researched. I hoped for more of the same in Consider the Fork, and I was not disappointed. Where Swindled is organized in a chronological fashion as a single narrative about the interaction of technology and food adulteration over time, Consider the Fork is done as a series of vignettes each discussing a different type of cooking technology as its own little story. The topics are not chapters, and are not even in length; rather each is as long as it needs to be, with topics such as “knife” and “fire” taking up around thirty pages while “toaster” and “rice cooker” are discussed in only two.
The history of technology and food, particularly ceramics, knives, and fire, are very much within the purview of anthropologists. Wilson does us the kindness of objectively mentioning the theories and research of some of our better known researchers without mention of the intra-disciplinary conflicts they often call to mind (for instance, how long humans have been cooking with fire).
Wilson’s strength is that of a journalist, not an academic. I’m not saying that I question her sources; if fact, I have found Swindled to be a wealth of references and Consider the fork probably will be as well. What I mean is that she has an excellent talent for drawing in the reader with personal references, experiences, and humor. A topic that could be very dry from a purely historical perspective (I’m looking at you, hand mixer) is brought to life with her engaging writing. Some of my favorite examples include:
“Cooking in a turtle shell is certainly a romantic notion. Whether anything was cooked in turtle shells except for turtles themselves is another matter.”
“We creamed the butter and sugar by hand before adding the eggs. I can still remember the dull throb in my arms, the feeling of sheer enervation that came upon us by the time the butter and the sugar were fully creamed…The degree of tiredness that must descend after three hours of whisking egg whites with nothing but some twigs simply does not compute.”
“This story cannot be right- as mentioned above, the name spork dates back to before 1909 and the form itself is still older: in nineteenth-century American silverware, the terrapin forks and ice-cream spoons were sporks in all but name (they were also known as “runcible spoons” after the Edward Lear poem).”*
Would I recommend this book for an anthropology of food course? Maybe not the whole thing. But to parse it up into the pieces one finds most valuable to teach is a disservice to the theory behind the book: of course some of the technology discussed seems unimportant. Fire is critical to the very nature of human evolution; why ask over-taxed students to bother reading even two pages of literature on the nutmeg grater? What about an archaeology course on technology? A class in the culinary arts? Of all things, the nutmeg grater might be best placed in a course on public health- once people were grinding it at home, it was much harder to sell the heavily-adulterated powder. There is no one logical place for a book about food-related technology. In the same way, I suspect that the average reader will find some entries more engaging than others. Overall Consider the Fork is a quick and entertaining read with many individual entries that could contribute to courses in many academic fields.
*Note on the term “runcible spoon”: Edward Lear’s nonsense word (“runcible”) from the Owl and The Pussycat and other works. It came eventually to describe a spork, pickle fork, or grapefruit spoon. In his illustrations the runcible spoon looks more like a weird ladle, leading me to believe based on his description of its use and the drawing that it is probably closer to a grapefruit spoon than a spork.
For those who are now really intrigued by the runcible spoon, or would like to learn more about forks in general, there is also The Evolution of Useful Things, by Henry Petroski (1992). Dr. Petroski is a mechanical engineer, so his perspective on the development and divergence of forks is functional and unique.
Above: an illustration from The Evolution of Useful Things
Books mentioned: Swindled, Bee Wilson (2008)
The Evolution of Useful Things, Henry Petroski (1992)