Friday, July 20, 2012

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, by Bee Wilson

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Consider the Fork is brilliant. It is not a history of what we eat but how we eat, which I found absolutely fascinating. Bee Wilson makes a strong argument that the utensils, cooking methods and table etiquette that we've developed over the millennia have shaped--and been shaped by--our individual cultures and have direct links to our food itself. 
          For instance, which came first--the Chinese stir-fry or the wok? The answer is both. Woks were developed to address a shortage of firewood and fuel. Cutting food into small, even pieces helps them cook faster and conserve energy. But the stir-fry and the wok are so linked to Chinese food culture it's hard to imagine Chinese food without them. And the other impact of wok cooking was that all knife work was done in the kitchen, not at the table, thus solving the age old question of how to make sure no one pulls a knife on you at dinner (one of the main concerns behind most British table etiquette). The British, on the other hand, had no such fuel shortage and were therefore able to slow roast meats for hours at a time, giving rise to one of England's most beloved culinary traditions--roast beef. 
          Bee Wilson gives a history of various aspects of food preparation, cooking and food storage that is so fascinating and detailed that it should be required reading for anyone writing historical fiction. Reading about typical late Victorian London kitchens had me thinking back to all of the novels I'd read from that time period (which is a lot) and reassessing how accurate they'd been.

          Whenever my daughter sees a picture on the computer of a cover of a book I've been reading (usually when I'm updating this blog) she says, "Oh that's the only book you're reading!" I laugh and remind her that it's almost never the only book I'm reading. I usually have up to ten books on the go at a time, reading a chapter or two at a time of each, until I get close to the end of one  and can't put it down. It's the reason I often write 2-3 book reviews at a time, because I've likely just finished reading more than one book. But for about two and a half days, this WAS the only book I was reading. I couldn't put it down! Any time I had a spare minute I knew I only wanted to read more about the history of colanders (not much change there) or table etiquette (a lot more changes there). My partner must have gotten sick of hearing things like, "You know that can opener you're using? Well did you know--"

Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book free from the publisher from I was not obliged to write a favourable review, or even any review at all. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.

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