Most histories of food tell the story of what we eat and why. For the most part, they don’t pay attention to how the food was prepared, what sorts of technologies went into making the food possible. Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat aims to fill that gap.
Since “the history of food is the history of technology,” Wilson’s book explores “how we have tamed fire and ice, how we have wielded whisks, spoons, graters, mashers, mortars and pestles, how we have used our hands and our teeth, all in the name of putting food in our mouth. There is hidden intelligence in our kitchens, and the intelligence affects how we cook and eat.”
She claims that “one of the greatest revolutions to take place in the British kitchen came with the adoption of enclosed brick chimneys and cast-iron fire grates, over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” In addition to producing new sorts of cooking pots, the enclosed fireplace made it reasonably certain that “women could cook food without setting fire to themselves.”
For those of us who have always longed for a history of the fork, Wilson’s book is somewhat disappointing, despite its title. But she does give a deft summary of the emergence of our pronged friend:
“The first true fork on historical record was a two-pronged gold one used by a Byzantine princess who married the doge of Venice in the eleventh century. St. Peter Damian damned her for ‘excessive delicacy’ in preferring such a rarefied implement to her God-given hands. The story of this absurd princess and her ridiculous fork was still being told in church circles two hundred years later.” In some versions, she died as a punishment for eating with a fork (p. 191). One wonders of Damian wasn’t more concerned about the gold than the fork.
As late as the early 17th century, “forks were still a joke. A 1605 book poked fun at Henri III as a “hermaphrodite” so effete that he would “never touch meat with their hands but with fork.” Henri and his silly friends “would rather touch their mouths with their little forked instruments than with their fingers” (191-2).
Italians alone adopted the fork early, on account of their taste for pasta. An Englishman, Thomas Coryate, saw Italians in 1608 holding down their meat with a fork as they cut it. He found the custom odd, but took a fork home with him and ate with it in England. His friends Ben Jonson and John Donne teased him as a “furcifer.”
Over the following century, the fork took off. Coryate had the last laugh. By 1700, they were common throughout Europe. Cromwell used a fork, and after the Restoration, eating with fork rather than fingers became the acceptable, refined, civilized way to eat. At the same time, plates began to replace bowls. Good thing, since it’s hard to use a fork and knife in a bowl (193).
Marx recognized the revolutionary impact of cutlery: “The hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a different hunger from that which bolts down raw meat with the aid of hand, nail, and tooth” (195).
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Tuesday, October 16, 2012 at 2:02 pm
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