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'Consider the Fork' Chronicles Evolution of Eating


Simple things like a pot or a wooden spoon or maybe even some of the more modern conveniences like a refrigerator or a gas stove. And to answer those questions and more, my next guest looked through the historical and anthropological records and found that how we cook, what we eat, has been largely influenced by social, economic and even political factors throughout the ages. Bee Wilson is a food writer and historian based in Cambridge, England. She's author of the new book "Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat." Welcome to the program.

BEE WILSON: Thank you. Hi.

FLATOW: Do we know how and when humans first started to cook?

WILSON: We know it was a really long time ago. I mean it depends which anthropologists you listen to, but I mean it's several million years ago that fire starts. And according to Richard Wrangham in his fantastic book "Catching Fire," cooking was the defining act that actually made us human, because by applying heat to food it meant that we were able to eat of a wider range, and it meant that our brains were able to grow large enough that we made that leap from primate to human.

But for me, the great beginning of cookery is the invention of the pot, much more recently in historic times, 10,000 years ago. And I think pots and pans are one of the many inventions in our kitchen that we don't even recognize as being inventions, because they've been around for so long. But if you imagine...

FLATOW: Like the fork.

WILSON: Like the fork. I mean the fork is, in historic times, extremely recent, and now, arguably, it's the most universal utensil. It's used at every kind of meal, from a fancy three-course dinner with silver-plated or stainless-steel cutlery, to a fast food meal where you might be using a plastic fork. And yet, it encountered huge resistance when it was first introduced. And for a long time in Europe, it was only the Italians who used forks. The reason being pasta, as we all know, forks are the perfect implement for twizzling long strands of noodles or spaghetti.

But in the rest of Europe, particularly Britain, they thought that forks were just these weird, effeminate, unnecessary objects, which we could do fine without. And this whole question of cutlery, it seems rather irrelevant compared to what we eat, and yet, if anthropologist called C. Loring Brace is correct, the adoption of the knife and fork at table, which happened roughly 250 years ago in society at large in Europe and then in the States - if he is right, then the adoption of the knife and fork actually had these profound implications on the structure of the human jaw.

And it was only around that time that human teeth moved from having an edge-to-edge bite, such as you would see in apes, to having the overbite that we have today, where the top layer of teeth fit over the bottom layer, like the lid on a box. This is far too recent a change for there to be any evolutionary or Darwinian explanation. And what Brace decided after studying many, many human jaws was that the only change that happened in that - at that time, wasn't what people ate, but it was how we ate.

And it was through the process of cutting food into small morsels from childhood onwards that we actually change the way that our jaws work. And the real clincher was that he found this change 900 years earlier in China, the reason being chopsticks.

FLATOW: We're talking about food this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Bee Wilson, food writer, historian and author of "Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat." Are our cooking and eating habits continually evolving, Bee?

WILSON: On the one hand, they're constantly changing. On the other hand, there are things which have been in our kitchens - not that kitchens have existed in their modern form - for thousands of years. Things like the mortar and pestle, which is very similar in form today to how it would have been in ancient Rome or ancient Mesopotamia even. Or things like the colander, which again, beautiful colanders exist in Pompeii and Herculaneum - and frying pans, beautiful ancient Greek and Roman frying pans.

So some things have remained constant - wooden spoons, nothing really does the job of a wooden spoon better than a wooden spoon, which is why perhaps it hasn't been replaced. And there's also always a role for the affection we feel, I think, for certain implements and...

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

WILSON: ...yeah, we're tied to the way that our mothers and grandmothers cooked, to a certain degree. And then there are other things, like really good vegetable peelers that do the job of peeling vegetables as efficiently as possible without hurting your hand, which have only been in our lives for about 20 years, give or take. So I think there's a sort of constant interplay between continuity and change, and the tools which were adopted - it's never just to do with how well they work technologically or scientifically on their own terms. It's always how they fit into a wider culture of cooking and economy, and how we feel about food.

FLATOW: You know, the - I think one surprising object we all have now is the microwave oven because we don't - I don't think we really think of it as a cooking thing, but as a reheating thing, don't we?

WILSON: That's right. I mean I think the microwave oven, it's an astonishing invention. I mean there are various mythical stories told about its invention. It was invented by someone called Percy Spencer in 1945, who was actually working on military radar systems. He had no idea he was going to invent one of the most successful cooking tools of all time. And there are these various stories told of how he was standing in front of an open wave guard and a chocolate bar melted in his pocket, or in another version, an egg exploded in his face, or there's this third one where he left his sandwich next to the magnetron and then he came back and find it was cooked.

Actually, none of this is probably true. It was actually developed through a series of slow observation by the whole of Spencer's team. But, um, I think the microwave oven it's a phenomenal invention, but it had the misfortune to be invented and marketed at just that point in history when TV dinners and processed food and all of those supermarket meals were also being taken off. So it was seen as a device merely for heating food up. And it's - lots of home - very good home cooks that I know feel really hostile towards the microwave oven in a way that I think they don't towards many other cooking tools.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

WILSON: And actually, its true culinary potential is only now really being recognized by the modernist cooks, people like Nathan Myhrvold, who see it as a fantastic tool for melting chocolate, caramelizing sugar, steaming vegetables.

FLATOW: Yeah. All right. We're going to get - very interesting, talking with Bee Wilson, author of "Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat." Jack Bishop, chef and editorial director, also a contributing writer for The Science of Good Cooking. We'll take your calls when we get back. 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about the chemistry, the science of cooking with Bee Wilson, author of the book "Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat;" and Jack Bishop, who's also with us. He is a cast member of "America's Test Kitchen" and "Cook's Country." Our number, 1-800-989-8255. I want to ask you a question, Bee. I'm going to quote from your book that says we've been talking about chemistry here in the first part of the program with Jack, and you say good cooking is a precise chemical undertaking.

The difference between a truly great dinner and a different one might be 30 seconds and one quarter of teaspoon of salt. And you go on to talk about how recipes - I think it was Fannie Farmer who you mentioned in your book - was the first one to actually write down these things.

WILSON: Yes. And I think that there's a sudden change in the nature of what a recipe is. For most of history, recipes were aide-memoires. They were sort of memory devices for people who already know how to cook. It wasn't instructing you in how to cook if you didn't know how to. Whereas Fannie Farmer had grown up not knowing how to cook herself, she learned relatively late in life, and she never took it for granted. And so her recipes, for the first time, are actually attempting to cook, teach her readers from scratch, how you can make something if you've never done it before and how it can be reproducible in the same way that a scientific experiment might be.

And unfortunately, the measuring system that she chose, the American cup measure system, is in my opinion one of the most erratic and prone to fluctuating results, particularly when it comes to cake making because there's a problem of density. So I don't believe that she succeeded in her aim of being a fully scientific cook. But then probably no one does because there's always this interplay in cooking, between the extent to which it is a precise chemical undertaking and then the role of instinct...

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

WILSON: ...and cooks, as our scientists, we're always juggling variables, aren't we? It's never quite the same kitchen that we walk into twice.

FLATOW: So how did writing this book changed how you thought about your own cooking?

WILSON: It made me realized many of the things I did already - there was this kind of huge history of invention behind these tools which I just kind of use without thinking about it. And in any case, this confirmed me in some of the ways that I like cooking. It made me really think about the fact that I do like certain pots or certain pans more than others, and sometimes it - rationale like I really like my cast-iron skillet whether it's for making pancakes, or cornbread or anything like that.

And then I came across the work of this engineer called Chuck Lemy(ph) who had attempted to come up with what the ideal surface would be for a pan, rating it according to nine different criteria. And he found that actually lots of the things that we want for our pan are completely incompatible. We want a pan to be very thin, so that it's very responsive to heat, but we also wanted it to be very thick so that it has good heat uniformity. And he found that it was virtually impossible to have come up with the perfect pan. But the one that came closest made out of single material was cast iron, and I read this and felt very vindicated in my affections...


WILSON: ...I would like it even if it wasn't such a perfect pan. So I think a large part of - it concerned me is my habits and as for others - I mean in finishing writing the book, I acquired a pressure cooker, which I think I wouldn't have done if I hadn't been researching the subject because it made me realized when I was considering the kind of modernist kitchen and the kitchen of the future, the extent to which we've often just been dealing with the variables of heat and time and quantity, and then there are all these other things that we can do, such as pressure...

FLATOW: Right, right, right.

WILSON: ...which are only just now being opened up. And I think there's always huge possibilities for cooking things in a different way, which I find very exciting.

FLATOW: Well, we've run out of time. I want to thank you both for being with us today. Bee Wilson, author of the book "Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook." Jack Bishop, chef and editorial director of "America's Test Kitchen," also he's on "Cook's Country" and also one of the contributors to The Science of Good Cooking. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

JACK BISHOP: Thank you, Ira.

WILSON: Thank you.

FLATOW: Happy New Year to you. Happy holiday season. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.