My favourite kind of history book – thoughtful, unusual, quirky and provocative
This is an utter joy. Like many, I suspect I have been a competent user of the day to day tools in my kitchen, without ever thinking about the relationship between those tools and the very food that I eat, or the way I eat them.
In this wonderful unpicking of the humblest kitchen tools, pots and pans, eating implements, knives, the source of heat itself, Wilson throws open our long history, weaving in biology, sociology, politics, technology, and the very way society organises itself. And much more.
This is everyday social history of the highest order. Not only does she make some extraordinary, but, when you think about it, obvious connections, but her very conversational STYLE is engaging. I’m a bit of a lightweight really, and however interesting the subject matter I can’t stay engaged by an author who is not gifted and skilful as a writer. And how Bee Wilson is.
For a couple of snippets – I had never considered that it was the leap from cooking food by direct heat – carcase over the fire – to the indirect cooking of something in liquid, that is: the need for a container so that the liquid can be heated by the fire and it is the heated water which heats the food – that opened the way to allow people who had lost their teeth through some trauma, to survive. Cooking vegetables and grains in water enables them to be turned into a mush which needs no chewing – and produces chemical changes. Some vegetables which contain chemistry which is toxic, could never be eaten until cooking vessels came into being – hard tubers can become soft when boiled, whereas cooked over a fire or within a fire are likely to be charred on the outside, and raw on the inside. This great culinary leap forward also opens the way to obesity as an unwanted side effect – starches and sugars become easily available and we have to expend little energy to get at them – an apple eaten raw has the same number of calories as the same apple stewed – but the body uses more energy to obtain the energy from the raw apple.
I grew up with stainless steel cutlery as the norm (steel alloy with chromium) – so had no idea that the earlier incarnation of steel cutlery (carbon steel) would corrode and react with the acid in foods to produce a nasty tainted taste on foods. Hence the reason why the French still think salad leaves should be hand torn, not cut (a residue from days when knives plus vinaigrette caused that acid reaction) and why the well-off would have silver fish knives – silver plus a squeeze of lemon juice on fish, fine, carbon steel plus lemon juice – eeeukk to the taste buds.
And, finally, I could go on and on plucking out delectable titbits of info to wave at you, pronged on my stainless steel fork – what WE think of as `roasting’ as in `roast beef’ is in fact baking, as in `baked beef’. The root of the word roast has the same origin as rotate, and comes from the spit roasting of food stuffs over an open fire/flame, the meat rotated for even cooking and a collecting vessel below to catch the juices. A completely different (and by all accounts) highly superior flavour and texture compared to oven baked meat. I better stop here, and waste no more of your time, but encourage you to get this lovely book and its charming line drawings, and delightfully spear some snippets for yourself, on a very old, point- ended table knife!
Picture by Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin; Photo of Cooking Utensils both from Wikimedia commons