Saturday, October 20, 2012

Weekend Cooking - Review : Consider the Fork

This is a delightful traipse through the story of how we prepare, cook and eat our food. Pots and pans : with rice cooker -- Knife : with mezzaluna -- Fire : with toaster -- Measure : with egg timer -- Grind : with nutmeg grater -- Eat : with tongs -- Ice : with moulds -- Kitchen : with coffee.  These are the Chapters in this elegant and very readable journey through the history of our gathering, preparing and consumption of food.  A perfect Weekend Cooking subject.

The author has done quite a thorough job of research and presents us with fun anecdotes about our ancestors and the evolution of cooking vessels, implements, and eating habits. It's full of interesting, little known, and fascinating tidbits.  I mean really!  I never knew that those gigantic medieval roasts on the spits were often turned by a dog running on a treadmill.  I wonder if the poor doggies at least got to gnaw on one of the bones from those juicy roasts?  And I wonder if my dentist knows that up until the mid 1800's almost none of us had teeth aligned in the classic "overbite" formation?

As I read this, I realized what a mix of time frames we enjoy in our "modern" kitchens. It was such a fun read that really got me to thinking about how I approach food prep and eating. I love eating with chopsticks but I also own several sets of more traditional Western cutlery and tableware from sterling silver to stainless steel.

I still rely almost exclusively on my good steel knives for cutting and chopping (although I wield a wicked mezzaluna).  My mandolin sits unused in its box.  I gave away my Cuisinart - it took up way too much room on my kitchen counter.  My little stick blender does a perfect job for my blending needs almost every day.  I measure liquids in a pyrex measuring cup, and solids in stainless steel.  I eyeball at least 50% of the dashes, pinches, tidbits and "to taste" ingredients I use and never realized until I read this that there are exact measurements certified for each of these, but who pays attention to mg or ml?  Except for cake baking, I'm not a scientific "by the book" cook.

I don't own a rice cooker or a pressure cooker, I gave away my breadmaker, but I use an electric coffee bean grinder, an electric ice- cream maker and a big Kitchen Aid mixer to knead dough. My 45 year old electric Farberware rotisserie does just fine on days when I can't grill outside.

I own 5 different coffeemakers from the ubiquitous Mr. Coffee, to an elegant espresso machine.  When the power goes, I still can boil water on the gas or wood burning stoves, so we can use our French press (but I'd better remember to grind an store some beans before the power goes!)  I still squeeze lemons and oranges on a glass squeezie thingie by hand.  I press my garlic with the side of a knife; grate my cheese, zest my lemons, and grind my nutmeg on a series of microplanes;  and prep my apples for pies on a 1854 Green Mountain cast iron apple peeler-corer-slicer.  My Revere copper bottomed pans are all 45 years old. I let my refrigerator make the ice cubes, and my slo-cooker do the boeuf bourginon, pulled pork, and Irish oatmeal.

When we lived in Japan, I was too pregnant to lean over the short little gas stove in our little house, so I bought my first microwave and for 9 months, until we moved onbase and got an American stove again, I cooked EVERYTHING in the microwave.  My daughter and I even baked christmas cookies in "the wave."  We did a Thanksgiving turkey, cupcakes, coffee, baby bottles, popcorn, hot chocolate, meatloaf, noodles, mac and cheese, oatmeal, veggies, and applesauce. To this day, I still soften butter and icecream in it, with hardly an "oopsie." I did use an electric wok for stir frying and tempura.  Now I cook with gas, my electric toaster oven, the slo-cooker, the waffle iron, the Farberware, and my trusty microwave (we're on the third one in 32 years).  When the weather's good, we cook on a gas grill outside, but it took us thirty years to make the switch from charcoal to bottled gas on that one.  Considering some of the evolutionary events described in this book that took centuries to complete, I guess I'm pretty modern.

Here are some more interesting tid-bits from the publishers press release:

THE TURNSPIT DOG: In Renaissance Britain there was a special breed of dog, the ‘turnspit’, whose job was to turn meat as it roasted. Bred to have short legs and long bodies, they were well suited to trundling round and round in a wheel attached to the spit. But there were signs that dogs were too intelligent for the job. One eyewitness recalled that the dogs used to run away or hide when they observed the cooks getting ready to make a roast for dinner. Many households switched to using geese instead, who could be forced to trundle the wheel for up to twelve hours at a time without rebelling.

THE PESTLE AND MORTAR: For most cooks today, the pestle and mortar is a pleasurable utensil, with which we might pound up a green basil pesto for fun.  It’s one of the more desirable and decorative items in any cookware store. But we forget that for most of history, the pestle was associated not with leisure but with servitude, the endless daily grind of producing enough edible nourishment. Female skeletons dating from the Stone Age in the Middle East reveal the strain that the pestle and mortar placed on the human body, with knees, hips and ankles all severely worn down from the pressure of hours of crushing grain against stone.

KNIVES, CHOPSTICKS, AND TEETH: Our choice of eating utensils may not seem a question of great consequence, but the tools we choose to eat with have actually had a dramatic impact on our bodies. The alignment of our teeth in an overbite is very recent: only about two hundred years old in the West. It likely came about because of the adoption of the knife and fork, which meant that for the first time people were chopping food into tiny morsels before chewing, instead of clamping larger pieces between their teeth. In China, the overbite developed much earlier – around 900 years ago – which corresponds to the time when chopsticks were first used.

MRS MARSHALL’S AMAZING ICE CREAM MAKER: In 1885 a great female entrepreneur and cook called Mrs. Marshall invented a hand-cranked ice cream maker capable of producing delicious smooth gelato in just three minutes – much faster than any electrical machine on the homewares market today. Instead of the paddle moving round while the bucket stays still, Mrs. Marshall invented a container that turns round while the paddle stays still. There are a handful of Marshall ice cream makers still in existence and they really do work. It goes to show that not everything in a modern kitchen is better than what came before. Why didn’t Mrs. Marshall’s machine take off? It has one big drawback: the inner container was made of zinc, a poisonous metal, so the ice cream it produces is mildly toxic.

THE GIANT EGGBEATER BUBBLE: Between 1856 and 1920, no fewer than 692 separate patents were granted for eggbeaters in the United States, including the iconic Dover design. Yet not one of these supposedly labor-saving beaters did a better job than the French balloon whisk, which had been around since the sixteenth century. Almost all of these eggbeaters were swept away by the electrical revolution of KitchenAid and Cuisinart in the twentieth century.

Many thanks to Basic Books, and their publicist Caitlin Grof for letting my read this one for review. I received no compensation, nor did I promise them a favorable review. 

Author: Bee Wilson
Publisher: Basic Books

Copyright/Year of original publication: 2012
Subject: Food preparation
Dates Read: October 4-15, 2012
Number of pages: 352 in hardcover edition
Source:  e-book review copy from publisher via Net Galley

Beth Fish Reads sponsors this weekly meme where we foodies can chat about cookbooks, cooking gadgets, recipes, or anything else gustatory. Be sure to stop over there to find other terrific weekend cooking posts.  


Post a Comment

Welcome, thanks for stopping by. Now that you've heard our two cents, perhaps you have a few pennies to throw into the discussion. Due to a bunch more anonymous spam getting through, I've had to disallow anonymous comments. I try to respond to all comments posing a question, but may not always get to you right away.