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Consider the Fork

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In many ways, culinary history parallels advances in technology. The microwave oven, which stormed on the scene in the 1950s only to arouse suspicion by cooks everywhere (Julia Child refused to own one), was not the discovery of a tinkering chef but a military engineer by the name of Percy Spencer working for the Raytheon Company and trying improve the magnetron, a vacuum tube for generating microwaves. Myths abound as to how Spencer actually realized that microwaves were also useful for heating food, but nonetheless it was an impressive leap of imagination, Wilson writes, to think “this vast metal cylinder, could be used not in the field of war but in a kitchen.”

Tools for cooking and eating were not only influenced by whatever new technology was being mastered on the battlefield, but also by constantly shifting cultural values. And Wilson packs “Consider the Fork” with as many bits of cultural history trivia as an overstuffed utensil drawer.

For instance, 17th-century Europeans started to pre-lay the dinner table with blunted knives after an adviser to King Louis XIII of France was disgusted by the sight of a dinner guest using the sharp tip of a double-edged knife to pick his teeth. Cultural upheaval ensued. New standards of table manners were introduced, and the table knife was reduced to the task of spreading butter. The fashionably subdued role of the knife thus brought the arrival of a new-fangled implement to spear food on a plate: the fork.

The fork eventually morphed into the spork in 1909, a handy packed lunch and fast food convenience part spoon, part fork that didn’t get patented until 1970. Similarly, the history of chopsticks is presented as a guide to understanding frugality, restraint, and mealtime etiquette across China and Japan.

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