Cookbook Watch: Bee Wilson’s ‘Consider the Fork’

"Consider the Fork" explores the nuts and bolts of kitchen equipment -- how it's developed over time and how that development has in turn affected the way we cook and live.
(Basic Books)

One of the really great things about the ever-increasing interest in food is the growing number of “serious” books about food history or policy that are being published every year. One of the really bad things about it is that so few of them really stand up to close scrutiny. For some authors, it seems, because the books are “just about food” means approaching the subject with a casual attitude that would never fly in other fields.

That’s why Bee Wilson’s new “Consider the Fork” is such a pleasure. Wilson is a British food writer not nearly well enough known in this country, who writes beautifully and has the academic chops to deliver what she promises (she has a Ph.D from Trinity College, her father is biographer-historian A.N. Wilson and her mother is a Shakespearean scholar).

Best of all, she takes her subject seriously. In this case, that is the nuts and bolts of kitchen equipment -- how it’s developed over time and how that development has in turn affected the way we cook and live.

This could be dry and academic, but Wilson brings it to life by digging out the perfect telling anecdote and with the occasional authorial interlude that serves to ground the historical in the contemporary. Reading the book is like having a long dinner table discussion with a fascinating friend. At one moment, she’s reflecting on the development of cast-iron cookware, then she’s relating the history of the Le Creuset company and the public’s changing tastes in color and then she’s reminiscing about her mother-in-law’s favorite blue pots.


One of the most fascinating chapters is on the nature of fire in the kitchen and how developing technologies have allowed us to tame it. She starts with a guy who does all of his cooking over an open fire, moves on to the dirty, smelly, dangerous days of coal ovens, how long it took for gas to become accepted and the revolutionary effect it had, and on to the microwave (about which she is perhaps more enthusiastic than current culinary fashion would warrant).

The pace is leisurely but lively. The dead spots are rare. It’s hard to imagine even the nongeek being tempted to skim sections. Just because Wilson takes her subject seriously doesn’t mean “Consider the Fork” isn’t a pure joy to read.