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Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, by Bee Wilson

Two words: Absolutely fascinating. 

I'm listening to this on CD right now, and I just have two CDs left. This is a truly enjoyable book. It is expertly written, entertaining, and well-researched. 

We take a lot for granted in our modern culinary lives, and little consider the long and arduous journey that got us to where we are today. Everything from learning how to control and maintain a fire, to creating cookware that was durable, portable, non-toxic, non-reactive, and heat resistant has been the combined effort of billions of people from every continent over many thousands of years. 

Who knew that a spoon could be a political statement, or that the initial cultural response to using a fork to eat with was met with derision and contempt. Or that medieval servants usually cooked in the nude because of the unbearable heat and danger of catching one's clothes on fire. Or that in China chopsticks were, in part, a response to an aversion at having knives at the table. 

There is so much information in this book I don't even know where to begin. Wilson is a wonderful writer and, most notably to me, remarkably adept and seguing from one subject to another in a completely natural and reasonable way; she's moved to the next subject before you've even realized she's left the last one. 

One drawback about the audio book is that I am undoubtedly missing out on some great photos and illustrations. 

If you like history or cuisine, you'll love this book. 

Here is some info from the book's website:

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 we would 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.

And here is an excerpt from the Introduction:

A WOODEN SPOON—MOST TRUSTY AND LOVABLE OF KITCHEN implements—looks like the opposite of “technology,” as the word is normally understood. It does not switch on and off or make funny noises. It has no patent or guarantee. There is nothing futuristic or shiny or clever about it.
    But look closer at one of your wooden spoons (I’m assuming you have at least one, because I’ve never been in any kitchen that didn’t). Feel the grain. Is it a workmanlike beech factory spoon or a denser maple wood or olive wood whittled by an artisan? Now look at the shape. Is it oval or round? Slotted or solid? Cupped or flat? Perhaps it has a pointy part on one side to get at the lumpy bits in the corner of the pan. Maybe the handle is extrashort, for a child to use, or extralong, to give your hand a position of greater safety from a hot skillet. Countless decisions—economic and social as well as those pertaining to design and applied engineering—will have gone into the making of this object. And these in turn will affect the way this device enables you to cook. The wooden spoon is a quiet ensemble player in so many meals that we take it for granted. We do not give it credit for the eggs it has scrambled, the chocolate it has helped to melt, the onions it has saved from burning with a quick twirl.
    The wooden spoon does not look particularly sophisticated—traditionally, it was given as a booby prize to the loser of a competition—but it has science on its side. Wood is nonabrasive and therefore gentle on pans—you can scrape away without fear of scarring the metal surface. It is nonreactive: you need not worry that it will leave a metallic taste or that its surface will degrade on contact with acidic citrus or tomatoes. It is also a poor conductor of heat, which is why you can stir hot soup with a wooden spoon without burning your hand. Above and beyond its functionality, however, we cook with wooden spoons because we always have. They are part of our civilization. Tools are first adopted because they meet a certain need or solve a particular problem, but over time the utensils we feel happy using are mainly determined by culture. In the age of stainless steel pans, it is perfectly possible to use a metal spoon for stirring without ruining your vessels, but to do so feels obscurely wrong. The hard metal angles smash your carefully diced vegetables and the handle does not grip so companionably as you stir. It clanks disagreeably, in contrast to the gentle tapping of wood.
    In this plastic age, you might expect that we would have taken to stirring with synthetic spatulas, especially because wooden spoons don’t do well in dishwashers (over many washes, they tend to soften and split); but on the whole, this is not so. I saw a bizarre product in a kitchenware shop recently: “wooden silicone spoons,” on sale for eight times the price of a basic beech spoon. They were garishly colored, heavy plastic kitchen spoons in the shape of a wooden spoon. Apart from that, there was nothing wooden about them. Yet the manufacturers felt that they needed to allude to wood to win a place in our hearts and kitchens. There are so many things we take for granted when we cook: we stir with wooden spoons but eat with metal ones (we used to eat with wood, too); we have strong views on things that should be served hot and things that must remain raw. Certain ingredients we boil; others, we freeze or fry or grind. Many of these actions we perform instinctively, or by obediently following a recipe. It is perfectly clear to anyone who prepares Italian food that a risotto should be cooked with the gradual addition of liquid, whereas pasta needs to be boiled fast in an excess of water, but why?* Most aspects of cooking are far less obvious than they first appear; and there is almost always another way of doing things. Think of the utensils that were not adopted, for whatever reason: the water-powered egg whisk, the magnet-operated spit roaster. It took countless inventions, small and large, to get to the well-equipped kitchens we have now, where our old low-tech friend the wooden spoon is joined by mixers, freezers, and microwaves; but the history is largely unseen and unsung.
    Traditional histories of technology do not pay much attention to food. They tend to focus on hefty industrial and military developments: wheels and ships, gunpowder and telegraphs, airships and radio. When food is mentioned, it is usually in the context of agriculture—systems of tillage and irrigation—rather than the domestic work of the kitchen. But there is just as much invention in a nutcracker as in a bullet. Often, inventors have been working on something for military use, only to find that its best use is in the kitchen. Harry Brearley was a Sheffield man who invented stainless steel in 1913 as a way of improving gun barrels; inadvertently, he improved the world’s cutlery. Percy Spencer, creator of the microwave oven, was working on naval radar systems when he happened upon an entirely new method of cooking. Our kitchens owe much to the brilliance of science, and a cook experimenting with mixtures at the stove is often not very different from a chemist in the lab: we add vinegar to red cabbage to fix the color and use baking soda to counteract the acidity of lemon in a cake. It is wrong to suppose, however, that technology is just the appliance of scientific thought. It is something more basic and older than this. Not every culture has had formal science—aform of organized knowledge about the universe that starts with Aristotle in the fourth century BC. The modern scientific method, in which experiments form part of a structured system of hypothesis, experimentation, and analysis is as recent as the seventeenth century; the problem-solving technology of cooking goes back thousands of years. Since the earliest Stone Age humans hacking away at raw food with sharpened flints, we have always used invention to devise better ways to feed ourselves.


* You might reply: because risotto needs to be starchy and creamy, whereas slippery pasta benefits from having some of its starch washed away in the water. But this still begs the question. Pasta can be delicious cooked risotto-style, particularly the small rice-shaped orzo, with the incremental addition of wine and stock. Equally, risotto-style rice can be very good with a single large addition of liquid at the beginning, as with paella.

More links:

A 12-minute spot on NPR

A review from The New Yorker

A review from The New York Times

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Replies to This Discussion

This does sound like a really interesting book. I'm putting it on my queue.

I just know you'll like it. 

My type of book!

I bought the book, I'm 1/4 of the way through. I like it! Very much, actually. I recommend it, it's entertaining, well written, full of great information. In reality, this is more than anything else, a cultural anthropology book. 

Consider the overbite, too :-)

Have you finished it yet?

I did. I liked it very much!

Glad to hear it. I'll have to look up her other books, eventually. I hardly have time to read any more, but I am trying to read Coal: A Human History, and I'm listening to Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, and about to listen to Bonobo Handshake after that. I'll post something later on these if I like them well enough. 

"Cheap" sounds like an interesting book. I personally was not crazy about the Bonobo Handshake, it was entertaining but it was a bit "soft-science-y" for my taste.

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture is a very good and important book. I don't know when I'll have time to review it, so I just wanted to say it is a "must read." 

It starts out with a basic history of goods production and shopping/consumerism in the US, detailing the changes in consumer preferences and expectations. She covers the rise of the first chain stores and then the later discount stores which followed, as well as the social reactions to them.

We take our way of life for granted, but self-service shopping (where consumers pull the goods from the shelves themselves), shopping carts, department stores, outlet malls, and even price tags were not always the norm. (A really fascinating history.)

From there she moves to consumer psychology: why we're so motivated to buy, especially when we think we're getting a good deal, what the word "free" does to our rationality, why we're such irrational consumers, and how marketers and merchandisers manipulate us into buying crap we don't need and doesn't last. Here she cites Kahneman, Ariely, and Demasio, among others. 

Then she moves into corporate business practices (and shenanigans), the de-skilling of labor, the outsourcing of jobs, and the exploitation of the environment. She takes on Wal-Mart, Ikea, and a few other corporations as well.

Then onto cheap food production and the hidden costs and health dangers.

From there to China and other developing countries where some of the most deplorable and exploitative labor practices occur (basically slavery)--all to satisfy the world's demand for cheap, disposable goods. While major corporations and US government officials all look the other way, of course.

And that's as far as I've gotten. I'm still listening to it, as it is a very long book. All this and I'm only on chapter 8 or 9. 

This is an important book. Well-researched and well-written. 

Now my to read list will soon grow bigger than I can manage.

The review makes one want to stop what they are currently reading and start this book.


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