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Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat [Hardcover]

Bee Wilson
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Oct. 2 2012
Since prehistory, humans have braved sharp knives, fire, and grindstones to transform raw ingredients into something delicious-or at least edible. Tools shape what we eat, but they have also transformed how we consume, and how we think about, our food. Technology in the kitchen does not just mean the Pacojets and sous-vide of the modernist kitchen. It can also mean the humbler tools of everyday cooking and eating: a wooden spoon and a skillet, chopsticks and forks.

In Consider the Fork, award-winning food writer Bee Wilson provides a wonderful and witty tour of the evolution of cooking around the world, revealing the hidden history of everyday objects we often take for granted. Knives-perhaps our most important gastronomic tool-predate the discovery of fire, whereas the fork endured centuries of ridicule before gaining widespread acceptance; pots and pans have been around for millennia, while plates are a relatively recent invention. Many once-new technologies have become essential elements of any well-stocked kitchen-mortars and pestles, serrated knives, stainless steel pots, refrigerators. Others have proved only passing fancies, or were supplanted by better technologies; one would be hard pressed now to find a water-powered egg whisk, a magnet-operated spit roaster, a cider owl, or a turnspit dog. Although many tools have disappeared from the modern kitchen, they have left us with traditions, tastes, and even physical characteristics that wewould never have possessed otherwise.

Blending history, science, and anthropology, Wilson reveals how our culinary tools and tricks came to be, and how their influence has shaped modern food culture. The story of how we have tamed fire and ice and wielded whisks, spoons, and graters, all for the sake of putting food in our mouths, Consider the Fork is truly a book to savor.

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New York Times Book Review
“Bee Wilson’s supple, sometimes playful style in Consider the Fork, a history of the tools and techniques humans have invented to feed themselves, cleverly disguises her erudition in fields from archaeology and anthropology to food science…. Wilson’s insouciant scholarship and companionable voice convince you she would be great fun to spend time with in the kitchen.... [Wilson is a] congenial kitchen oracle.”

The New Yorker
"Full of intriguing scholarship… Wilson remains engaging, and nowhere as deeply or as smoothly as in Consider the Fork, where the information she has to juggle is at once gastronomic, cultural, economic, and scientific…. Everything in Bee Wilson’s pithy book brings you back to the kitchen: her histories of weights and measures and pots and pans; her observations on the domestication of fire and ice…; her homey riffs on small, exasperating “technologies” like egg timers, cake molds, tongs, and toasters…. Socially astute and funny.”

The Washington Post
"[An] ambitious, blenderized treatise. The path from Stone Age flints to sous-vide machines whirs so smoothly that I found myself re-reading passages just to trace how the author managed to work in a Victorian copper batterie de cuisine along the way."

ELLE Magazine
“[A] delightfully informative history of cooking and eating from the prehistoric discovery of fire to twenty-first-century high-tech, low-temp soud-vide-style cookery.”

Alice Rawsthorn,
“One of the delights of Consider the Fork is that [Wilson’s] fascination with the history of food is balanced by the pleasure she takes in preparing dishes herself, watching others do so and, best of all, tasting the results. Ms. Wilson’s design critiques of different utensils, from the humble wooden spoon to a snazzy sous-vide water bath, are all the more convincing for being made by a knowledgeable and passionate cook, who isn’t afraid to admit to her failures, yet longs for delicious successes.”

Los Angeles Times
“Wilson is a British food writer not nearly well enough known in this country, who writes beautifully and has the academic chops to deliver what she promises. . . . Reading the book is like having a long dinner table discussion with a fascinating friend. At one moment, she’s reflecting on the development of cast-iron cookware, then she’s relating the history of the Le Creuset company and the public’s changing tastes in color and then she’s reminiscing about her mother-in-law’s favorite blue pots. . . . The pace is leisurely but lively. . . . It’s hard to imagine even the non-geek being tempted to skim sections. Just because Wilson takes her subject seriously doesn’t mean Consider the Fork isn’t a pure joy to read.”

Good Housekeeping
“One part science, one part history, and a generous dash of fun, Wilson’s surprise-filled take on cooking implements makes one marvel at the dining rituals we all take for granted.”

New Republic
“[A] wide-ranging historical road map of the influence of culture on cuisine… it is easy and delightful to get swept up in Wilson’s zeal.... It is fluid yet engaging, just like a good conversation over a pan of sizzling vegetables.... Cooking is full of paradoxes. It is art and science, ancient and modern, fundamental and trivial, easy and difficult. Wilson presents these dissonances in their entirety, making no show of resolving them. In the end, her tone suggests that she writes about food for the same reason we read about it: sheer pleasure and lighthearted fascination. The big questions are just seasoning for the soup.”

The Guardian
“What new intellectual vistas remain to be conquered by the food obsessive? . . . The erudite and witty food writer Bee Wilson has spotted a gap in the market. . . . [Her] argument is clear and persuasive.”

“Wilson celebrates the unsung implements that have helped shape our diets through the centuries. After devouring this delightful mix of culinary science and history, you'll never take a whisk for granted again.”

Wall Street Journal
“In the case of Bee Wilson’s “Consider the Fork,” the author is blessed with an assemblage of entertaining tidbits and particularly lucid prose.... Wilson is a good tour guide.... [A] dizzying, entertaining ride.”

Harper’s Magazine
“Bee Wilson’s delightful Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat does talk about the fork, but that’s just one part of her ebulliently written and unobtrusively learned survey of the tools we have used to prepare, preserve, and consume our food.”

The Spectator (London)
Consider the Fork is a delightful compendium of the tools, techniques and cultures of cooking and eating. Be it a tong or a chopstick, a runcible spoon or a cleaver, Bee Wilson approaches it with loving curiosity and thoroughness…. But as well as providing wry insights into the psychology of cooks down the ages, Consider the Fork is infused with a sense that every omelette, cup of coffee, meringue or tea cake is steeped in tradition and ancient knowledge, and that that is partly what makes cooking one of life’s joys.”

The Daily Beast
“A book to keep at your side as you cook. Consider the fork. It’s a piercing, sharp weapon associated with the Devil. How did this unlikely tool become the West’s most popular and indispensable utensil? Wilson serves up brisk histories of everything you use in the kitchen.”

Christian Science Monitor
“Wilson is an award-winning British food writer who skillfully turns a potentially dull subject into one of wit and wisdom. Nor does she lose touch with the human element that has drawn so many into the world of cooking and the universal subject of food. After all, a knife is only as good as the cook who wields it…. Wilson packs Consider the Fork with as many bits of cultural history trivia as an overstuffed utensil drawer.”

Barnes & Noble Review
“If you are open to being entertained and instructed by the history of food, then Bee Wilson couldn’t be happier to oblige. In Consider the Fork, she explores the ways in which kitchen tools and techniques affect what and how we eat, with the same owlish brio and dry humor that Jane Grigson brought to vegetables and charcuterie…. [A] smart, regaling survey.”

New Statesman
"Endlessly fascinating."

Roanoke Times
“Like a well-planned meal, Consider the Fork provides a variety of fare that will entertain and educate foodies of any variety…. The result of [Wilson’s] combination of sophisticated humor and scholarship is an enjoyable tale about the very essence of existence and civilization.”

New York Post
“At the risk of trotting out a cliché, Brit writer Wilson's book truly is food for thought. (And fun to read, too).”

Mail on Sunday
“Substantial and entertaining…. Bee Wilson belongs to a rare breed: the academic who can write. This book is dense with research, all of it rendered highly palatable…. The history comes in delicious nuggets of the kind that one immediately wants to pass around in conversation.”

Observer (London)
“Like all the best books on apparently simple everyday commodities, this is of course really a gripping story of millennia of human ingenuity. Over the centuries the need to eat has led us to develop an astonishing plethora of niche skills and equipment, has made of eating itself a highly sophisticated act of pleasure as well as survival. . . . Witty, scholarly, utterly absorbing and fired by infectious curiosity, Consider the Fork wears its impressive research lightly.”

Daily Mail (London)
“Wilson’s tour of the kitchen explores all the essential elements of domestic cookery through the ages. She peers into the kitchen cupboards of the past to scrutinise the pots and pans our ancestors used to contain their food, and the knives with which they used to cut it…. Wilson’s book is diligently researched and she has a sharp eye for a vivid historical detail.”

The Sunday Times (London)
“This [is a] sparkling… fascinating and entertaining book…. In considering the fork, in short, [Wilson] forces us to reconsider ourselves.”

Shelf Awareness
“Wilson’s sprightly, knowledgeable voice skips nimbly through the narratives of pots and pans, knives, grinding implements and eating utensils, working up to the theme of the kitchen as a whole. . . . Don’t be surprised if you find yourself sitting up at night with Consider the Fork, unable to turn out the light until you find out how storing and shipping ice became viable. You will never again walk into your kitchen without thinking of the rich history represented by even the humble fork.”

Smithsonian Magazine
“Bee Wilson’s spirited history of kitchen implements ranges from the humble wooden spoon to the cutting-edge sous vide machine. A British food writer and historian, Wilson is learned and personal, wise and charming…. There are complex investigations at work in Wilson’s book; it’s nominally about things in our cabinets and on our shelves, but it’s really about family, labor, technology, sensation…. From such ingredients an enchanting book is made.”


About the Author

Bee Wilson is a food writer, historian, and author of three previous books, including Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee. She has been named BBC Radio's Food Writer of the Year and is a three-time Guild of Food Writers' Food Journalist of the Year. Wilson served as the food columnist for the New Statesman for five years, and currently writes a weekly food column for the Sunday Telegraph 's Stella magazine. She holds a Ph.D. from Trinity College, Cambridge, and lives in Cambridge, England.

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining June 14 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book gives the reader some insight into the kitchen tools and traditions of how we prepare and consume food. I enjoyed the commentary at the end of each chapter that enlightened the reader about specific food-related topics. An informative and fun read for anyone who loves to cook or eat!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By microfiche TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I like this book for the reason the previous two reviews fault it : its style. Actually I found it quite well put together. The spoons stir in the kitchen and lift the soup in the dining room / hall (even when and where there were no formal places to make / eat the food). The knives chop and cut. The forks pierce and hold. The Cusinart blends and does all that food processors do. Each chapter puts the development of the item in its chronological place.

The style is chatty and personal. The author talks about the chefs she has met and the foods she has eaten out and prepared in. She mentions her family, incidents in her growing up in Mum's kitchen. It's not a scholarly tome, but enough "I didn't know that" moments to satisfy this reader. It also has an excellent bibliography, though I don't think I could find a tenth of the books in Ontario outside of the University of Guelph's Culinary History collection.

No recipes.

One problem with the Kindle edition: The drawings in the paper version are imbedded in the text. This means that if the text surrounds in the drawing, the Kindle process "read" all the text to the left of the drawing, then all the text to the right of the drawing. Those sentences are mangled. It doesn't happen often; but it is confusing, annoying and I might buy the book when / if it is remaindered, instead of adding notes from the version in my public library to the Kindle.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More Bookish Thoughts... Jan. 26 2013
By Reader Writer Runner TOP 50 REVIEWER
Well, 3.5 stars...

Forks, knives, pots and pans, measuring cups. These kitchen fixtures seem so basic that we can hardly imagine a time in which they didn't exist. But Bee Wilson takes us that far back in history and presents a fascinating look at the tools of cooking and eating.

How did humans cook food before pots? Only by charring and grilling. How did people know when an egg was cooked before timers? By reciting six Lord's Prayers. And how did recipes come to have standard measurements? Well, they still don't - most of the world uses weight, a system much more accurate than cups.

On one hand, Wilson deftly covers the basics in an informative, wide-ranging, and witty book. You can open any page of "Consider the Fork" and think, "I never even considered that!" On the other, the book has an "uncooked" feeling; it lacks cohesion and contains some patently false-sounding narrative. A smattering of history, a few attempts at charming personal anecdotes, and lots of name dropping don't yield much in the end.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Uncooked! Oct. 21 2012
By Pierre Gauthier TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Audio CD
Clearly, a considerable amount of research has been made before producing this work. It does include a wide array of historical facts and anecdotes on a fascinating topic that is rarely covered elsewhere in such detail.

Sadly, insufficient efforts were given on actually organizing and writing the book. Though sections are devoted to specific topics such as forks, blenders and coffee makers, there is little structure in the material presented. Chronologically and geographically, the reader is constantly shifted from one point to another. One might think that a series of notes were simply attached with word processing software.

The situation is worsened by the numerous self-centered references to the author's favourite breakfast, to the cup given by her husband featuring the portraits of the US presidents, to her mother, to her children, etc.

In the audio book version, the narrator quite fittingly has a rather maternal voice. The occasional imitations of foreign accents are however poorly rendered and outright annoying.

Overall, this work can hardly be recommended except perhaps (in written format) as a source of information on specific aspects of the cooking universe.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.1 out of 5 stars  152 reviews
68 of 78 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why Even Atheists Pray in the Kitchen Oct. 2 2012
By takingadayoff - Published on
Consider the Fork. And the knife. Pots and pans. Measuring cups. Items so basic that we rarely wonder how they came to be and what people used before. Bee Wilson considers forks and more in a book about the tools of cooking and eating. That may sound prosaic, but the result is simply fascinating.

Wilson gets down to basics in an informative, wide-ranging, and witty book. What about pots? It was a big step to apply fire to food and another big step to apply indirect fire to food. Humans were grilling and charring food for thousands of years before they tried putting something between the food and the fire. It was some time before they could devise a material that would stand up to fire but allow the food to heat through it. Once that was accomplished, humans could boil food and fry it. It isn't hard to imagine how humans discovered that fire could make unpalatable food edible or good food even better, but I'd never appreciated the gigantic steps it took to reach boiling and frying.

What about something as simple as timing a soft-boiled egg? Before clocks, before egg timers, how did people time their eggs, or anything else? Often by reciting a well-known prayer. The prayers would be familiar since everyone went to church often enough to know the prayers and the standard tempo to recite them. Six Lord's Prayers and the egg is done.

It was only in the past century that measuring amounts became at all standard. Recipes were rather tricky before standard measures. But in America they are still trickier than they need to be, because we are the only country that uses a cup to measure dry volume. The rest of the Western world uses weight measures (and metric weight at that, which we Americans still refuse to adopt.) A cup of flour is a terribly imprecise amount, as it depends on how tightly packed it is and whether it is a rounded cup or level. But 100 grams is 100 grams no matter how you pack it.

It hasn't always been a straight line of improvement, either. It's a mystery why egg beaters became so popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when wire whisks already existed and do the job better. Ice cream makers of a hundred years ago are quicker and easier to use than even the best ice cream makers of today.

You can read Consider the Fork from beginning to end or dip into it anywhere and find something that will make you think either "I always wondered about that" or "I never even considered that. Amazing!"

(Thanks to NetGalley for a review copy.)
37 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Suffice to say - this is a real treat! Oct. 2 2012
By BLehner - Published on
What did you have for breakfast today? Or more importantly how did you prepare it? I bet several kitchen appliances have been put to good use. Pans and knives, measuring and grinding, fire and ice (or rather, stove and fridge) - Consider The Fork by Bee Wilson isn't your ordinary guide into the history of food, but into the world of implements and technology inside the kitchen. It's not about what but how we eat, and if you find this to be a trivial topic, think again, because it's most certainly not. I promise, after reading this book you will never look at your spoon the same way again!
Skillfully the author weaves a tapestry of her own observations while cooking, mixing it with fascinating excursions into history, effortlessly seguing from everyday snapshots to the distant past. Thoroughly researched and wonderfully detailed, but even more so, engrossingly and smoothly written, this book is literally a real treat for everyone even remotely interested into a look at the technology behind everything we eat. As unimportant as the equipment of a kitchen may seem compared to the history of food itself, I was both surprised and delighted by this book. I have always had a great appreciation for books presenting a slightly different angle on historical aspects of things, and this one catered to my taste (pun intended) just perfectly.
In short: A mesmerizing and beautifully written journey into the world of kitchen utensils!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the NetGalley book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A history of cooking, at times fascinating Nov. 6 2012
By Geoff Puterbaugh - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Very few historians have ventured into this territory, and Bee Wilson deserves great credit for going into that undiscovered country.

As one example, her discussion of the history of FIRE in cooking is fascinating. Early humans simply put meat into a fire (if they had one), and then centuries passed with an "open-hearth" kitchen. You may imagine that such a kitchen would be romantic and organic -- a huge open fire with meat turning on a spit -- and there is indeed very good evidence that this is the best way to roast meat. But you are probably overlooking the dangers & drudgery involved here: the fire is HOT, very HOT, and who is going to turn the spit? Answer: young boys who normally worked without clothes because of the heat.

The next step was the coal-fired oven, which no person in their right mind would use today. It required massive amounts of time for both cooking and cleaning.

Have I mentioned the obvious fact that both open-hearth cooking, and coal-fired cooking, require the presence of a lot of servants? The delicious "Rosbif" went to the lord of the manor.

Somewhere around this point, I realized that my inexpensive counter-top range (powered by propane, with two burners, cost less than $100) was a huge step forward for both men and women.

And once again I thank my lucky stars to have been born in California in 1946. Four centuries ago, I might have been a "servant boy" destined to turn the spit for the lord of the manor.

As I said, the discussion of fire was very interesting. I found that the history of spoons and forks was not so very interesting.

On the whole, I recommend this book. You'll learn a whole bunch of stuff which you probably never thought worth thinking about.
71 of 93 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Underdone and Underwhelming. 2.5 stars. Nov. 8 2012
By B. Shutes - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I wanted to like this book. I ordered it in hopes that I had found some sort of Ur-text on the history of cooking and dining wares. What I received fell far short of expectations.

I heard about Ms. Wilson's book, read some favorable (and far more so-so, objective) reviews after beginning to read it and so many of them echoed what I've come to find: The book just isn't that good. In the words of another reviewer, it's uncooked. The mise en place is all right there, but no one bothered to tell the author how to assemble it into something the reader would adore and tell his or her friends about. Far less than that, it's tough to care about what you're reading when you feel you're being talked at.

Don't get me wrong... the information is there. It's just not presented in any sort of a cohesive manner that is enticing to a reader. I'm an avid reader and am the type to read "before" bed and find it, sooner than later, 3 a.m. There's something patently false about Ms. Wilson's narrative that makes this text seem like the ultimate in bored dilettantism. A smattering of history, a few attempts at charming personal anecdotes, and lots of name dropping don't yield much in the end.

Additionally, some of her statements just make my skin crawl. I'm a 30-year-old male. When I read a sentence like, "To the woman who has just acquired an electric blender, the whole world looks like soup," I feel flabbergasted. Ignoring that it's simply inelegant and an utterly awkward statement, it so reeks of mid-century sexism that I couldn't believe it somehow made it past an editor in 2012.

I really wish that I could recommend this book. Unfortunately, I was left cold. Parts read like a dissertation, other areas work the folksy angle, and far too much of it just sounds like an infomercial you'd flip past on TV without the slightest thought or care.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Savory, informative read Dec 27 2012
By Jon Hunt - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This wonderful new book by British authour Bee Wilson could have been subtitled, "A History of the Kitchen", for this room is the centerpiece of her story. It's well-crafted and laid out in sections which range from pots and pans to heat measurements, grinding and even ice. The savor in "Consider the Fork", comes not only from its content, but also from the author's beautiful narrative style.

What makes her book so warming is its familiarity to the reader. We've all spent time in the kitchen either participating in or observing how a meal is put together, so "Consider the Fork" is like comfort food for the eyes. Who would have given so much time and love to the wooden spoon or to gently poke Americans for being the only country in the world that measures by the cup and not by weight? When Ms. Wilson refers to Ivan Day's superb roasting techniques, (albeit ancient ones) one can almost taste its succulence.

The information she presents is astonishing and delivered with great care. Clearly, the author loves telling us about what she knows. I suppose one can find chapters of particular pleasure, but I reveled in her chapter on ice. While heat plays so much a part in the kitchen, ice eventually found its way in as well, and in less than a hundred years we've gone from drippy, smelly ice boxes to state-of-the-art preservation.

I highly recommend "Consider the Fork", especially because the reward of reading it for me was so much more than my original anticipation. Bee Wilson has done an outstanding job with so many aspects surrounding our meals and her book is a joy to read.
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