The subtitle of this delightful book is A History of How We Cook and Eat. What a fun book! Filled with all kinds of fascinating facts you never knew about our utensils, our food, and our cooking process, all in a casual easy-reading style. Makes you feel you are sitting across the kitchen island having a cup of coffee and a conversation with somebody who really knows what they are talking about.
Fr’instance, did you know that the adoption of cooking pots began about 10,000 years ago! And you thought we were still just rummaging around the fields and woods shoving whatever we found to be edible into our mouths. WRONG! We have been cooking for that long. Cooking, mind you, not just ripping raw mastodon meat off the bones and gnawing away. Because roasting goes back hundreds of thousands of years. Just think, for hundreds of thousands of years, guys have been donning the chef’s apron, grabbing a long stick and playing backyard bbq king, with the kids mooching around, clinging to mom’s saber tooth tiger skirts whining “Is it done yet? When are we gonna eat?” There’s something to think about.
And how about this: the folks living near geysers experimenting for many thousands of years with dipping raw foods into the swirling steam, attached to a stick or string that could be used to whip out the food once it was done.
Back in the day — and that day would be medieval times – everybody had his or her own knife, usually hanging from a belt. They brought this to the table to cut their food. So a lot of our manners come from the fear that the man next to you may pull his knife on you. So guess what evolved – you got it – that dainty, round ended butter knife. Hard to create mayhem with a butter knife.
Table knives ceased being sharp. They were thus divested of their power, too. The raison d’etre of knives is to cut. It takes a civilization in an advanced state of politesse — or passive aggression — to devise on purpose a knife that does a worse job of cutting. In 1669, cutlers were forbidden by King Louis XIV from forging pointed dinner knives in France.
OK, another medieval urban myth debunked:
The myth was bandied about that cooks in the past used spices to disguise the taste of putrid meat. This was not so: spices were expensive and would not be wasted on condemned food. But an important use of spices was tempering the harshness of salt meat.
Salt was one of the sure ways to preserve meats and other foods, and it left a strong residue on the dish being cooked, hence the spices.
Mz Wilson talks about the appearance of the fork, which was actually, historically speaking, fairly recent. She discusses spoons at some length, because there is an awful lot about spoons the average person does not know. Spoons have had different shapes at different times in history, depending on what was eaten with them. A spoon for sugar for your tea is not much good for shoveling in stew or porridge, and then we have the shapes that don’t actually fit the mouth very well, and must be sipped from. It all gets kind of alarmingly complicated. There is evidence that ancient peoples fastened shells to sticks to use as spoons for liquids. Who knew!
Well, I could go on and on, about the whisk, the peeler, and grinding apparatus, such as mortar and pestles, grinding wheels. After all, how else do you think we got breads and cereals? But I am not going to.
Go read it and learn something so you will sound erudite and intelligent at your next dinner party.