Not just knives I hasten to add, but pans, measuring cups and all sorts other kitchen items too. I’m reading Consider the Fork – A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson. It isn’t a book I had been aware of, despite being published in 2012, but it is the selection for this month’s reading group at Book Larder. Having access to book store with a good selection of cookery books is brilliant – having access to a book store which only sells cook books – now, that is heaven. And then finding out it runs all sorts of workshops and discussions, well count me in!
I haven’t ever been part of a book group, not quite sure how I have managed to pass that one by. I have attended lots of book readings, run a literature festival and supported the set up of reading groups, but I guess time and geography never quite meant I was in the right place at the right time to be a member of one myself. Now I have the luxury of time, at least for a while, and I’m going to make the most of it. I intend not only to be a regular at The Book Larder, but also Elliot Bay Book (more of which in a future post).
The bloke had images of women getting together to discuss shepherd’s pie recipes (do they even have shepherd’s pie in the States? I haven’t ever seen it on a menu.) but we will ignore that… Consider the Fork had mixed reviews on-line, and so I wasn’t sure it was worth buying, even with the Book Larder’s discount, so I placed a request with Seattle Public Library. In no time at all it was a few streets away ready to collect, hurrah for free at the point of access public services. Well I have to say that it has proved to be way more interesting than I expected, even if I do have to agree with some of the critics about some limitations of the writing style. I can even see me buying it as gift for a few culinary obsessed, I mean interested, friends. So I encourage you to have a dip in, and see if it takes your fancy.
Among the many things I found interesting were that:
- Until the seventeenth century professional chefs in rich households were almost universally men, and they often worked naked or just in undergarments because of the scorching heat generated from open hearths. Women’s clothing with its billowing skirts and and trailing sleeves was a real fire hazard, keeping them in the dairy and scullery until enclosed brick chimneys and fire grates became the norm.
- The Victorian instruction to boil carrots for 45 minutes (what!!!) isn’t quite a terrible as it seems. They were simmered in a small pan with very little water (due to scientific thinking about energy waste at the time) filled full of carrots. Also many of the vegetables were coarser than the varieties we now have, taking longer to cook.
- Silver fish knives were not (just?) an affectation of class, the non-reactive qualities of silver ensured that delicate fish dishes were fully enjoyed, the carbon steel knives of the time being highly reactive to the lemon, and heavily tainting the dish.
- One purpose of the multi-functional Chinese tou, cleaver type blade, at the heart of classical Chinese cooking, was to ensure that when food reached the table no further cutting was necessary; no knives needed to be on the table. In Europe people used to carry a knife with them at all times, often on rope around their waist, so when they came to the table they were fully prepared to cut food. The way this changed – to tables already being laid with knives, then those knives losing a sharp edge, even promoting a return to carrying your own again in some places – is really fascinating. I will leave you to find out about it in your own reading…
One question Bee Wilson poses is: which utensil in your kitchen is the rarely, if ever used one, that sits at the back of the drawer/cupboard? It having initially convinced you of its time saving promise and efficiency you now see through its lie and know it just adds time and effort. Having just packed and unpacked a kitchen I am all too aware of what is in mine, and even after a cull there remains a daft plastic egg separator which I never use – instead preferring the ease and pleasure of passing the egg yolk between the broken halves of its shell whilst the white falls. What lurks in the dust at the back of your kitchen?
The discussion of Consider the Fork is on 20th January and free, perhaps I will see you there?