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Profound, entertaining journey into cooking history

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Consider the Fork

A History of How We Cook and Eat

By Bee Wilson

Basic Books, 310 pages, $30

This is an amazing journey into cooking technology from prehistory to the present that is at once profound and entertaining.

Author Bee Wilson, a veteran British food writer, intrigues throughout by blending anthropology, archeology, history and science with witty personal anecdotes about her own cooking experiences.

Her purpose is to reveal the hidden intelligence in the apparently simple technology in our kitchens, and to explain why it matters -- it is totally enmeshed with what we are biologically and intellectually, and our social, economic and cultural systems, as well as our everyday sustenance and survival.

That the discussion is thoroughly researched and documented in easy to follow format reflects Wilson's impressive background. With a doctorate in history from Cambridge, Wilson is a lauded U.K. food critic, columnist and author.

Her previous books include Sandwich: A Global History (2010), Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud (2008) and The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us (2006).

In Consider the Fork, Wilson traces how humans have always used invention to devise better ways to feed themselves.

There is a technology behind everything we eat. It does not have to be electronic or futuristic. It can be a fork, a pot, a measuring cup, or a particular way of applying heat to the food.

She points out that skeletal evidence from archeology suggests that no one survived into adulthood without teeth before the invention of pottery about 10,000 years ago. Early ancestors who lost all their teeth simply couldn't chew and would starve. The cooking pot saved them by enabling people to make food mushy-liquid, edible without chewing.

A more startling example is Wilson's reference to anthropologist Richard Wrangham on how harnessing fire and the consequent art of cooking enabled us to evolve from apes to Homo erectus.

In making most foods far easier to digest and releasing more of the nutritive value, cooking gave us better food, enhanced our physical development, and helped make our brains uniquely large, providing the body with a brilliant human mind.

Historic developments come alive as Wilson draws on her thorough research and quick wit to weave throughout her text many details of social and economic context, place and time, as well as stories of the people involved.

For example, we easily appreciate why Italy was the first European culture to start using forks, which were considered odd in the rest of Europe until the 17th century.

The lively description seems to seat us right at the table watching Italian diners spiking and twirling noodle-lengths of the specific pastas she names.

As well, Wilson leads us deftly through the science of cooking technologies. She likens a cook at the stove to a chemist in the lab and neatly outlines the principles of thermodynamics and microwaving.

She tracks developments through to current times. She provides useful information on how to achieve the geometry required in properly sharpening a knife edge, why and how to correctly season a pan, research findings on safety of non-stick pans, and discussion on experimental, high-tech modernist cuisine and its vacuum sealed, low-temperature sous-vide cookery.

Each of eight chapters covers the scope of a major cooking technology. Surprisingly, the topics do not follow the chronology of their emergence.

If this eccentric pattern is disconcerting, readers could start with the introduction, then skip to Chapter 8 dealing with the kitchen for a broad grounding before delving into the other chapters.

Chapter 2 reviews the knife, the oldest tool in the cook's armory and one to two million years older than management of fire (Chapter 3).

Roasting on direct flame is the oldest technique of cooking, predating by nearly two million years the technology of pottery for boiling (Chapter 1 on pots and pans). Controlling a large fire and mastery of the knife's cutting power together represent the most challenging and dangerous of cooking technologies.

Chapters 4 through 8 explore measurement of key cooking parameters, grinding methods and mixing machines, eating tools, cooling and, finally, technology of the kitchen as a base from which to seek and create alternative technologies.

Although the chapter titles may sound ordinary and mundane, their content is anything but. Wilson always surprises with the scope and depth she brings to each.

Wilson's contribution to food lore is unique. Previous cooking histories have focused on agriculture, industry and culinary ingredients. Her work is ground-breaking in articulating the intelligence and history of the basic food technologies and how these have enabled us to become and survive as human beings, even shaped our societies.

Anyone seriously interested in food or nutrition will find that the notes and bibliography are especially interesting, easy to follow and worth tracing.

Consider the Fork offers an enlightening read that will expand the knowledge foundation of any food-related subject.

Pat Allen is a retired community nutritionist and health promotion specialist living in southeastern Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 20, 2012 J10

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