Consider the Fork: How Technology Transforms the Way We Cook and Eat

Christine Frederick’s rational kitchen had been driven by efficiency: the fewest steps, the fewest utensils. The new ideal kitchens were far more opulent. These were dollhouses for grown women, packed with the maximum number of trinkets. The aim was not to save labor but to make the laborers forget they were working.

Every new technology represents a trade-off: something is gained, but something is also lost.

For much of the twentieth century, American visitors to Britain found that everything was the wrong temperature: cold, drafty rooms; warm beer and milk; rancid butter and sweating cheese.

Here’s a quick translation: spork = a spoon with added tines; splayd = a knife, fork, and spoon in one, consisting of a tined spoon with a sharpened edge; knork = a fork with the cutting power of a knife; spife = a spoon with a knife on the end (an example would be the plastic green kiwi spoons sold in kitchenware shops); sporf = an all-purpose term for any hybrid of spoon, fork, and knife.

In the 1930s, the Nazis borrowed the frugal image of the one-pot meal, putting it to ideological use. In 1933, Hitler’s government announced that Germans should put aside one Sunday, from October to March, to eat a one-pot meal: Eintopf. The idea was that people would save enough money in this way to donate whatever was saved to the poor. Cookbooks were hastily rewritten to take account of the new policy. One recipe collection listed no fewer than sixty-nine Eintopfs, including macaroni, goulash, Irish stew, Serbian rice soup, numerous cabbagey medleys, and Old German potato soup.

It is the technique, above all, that makes a meal Chinese or not.

It was little trouble to boil up mutton and water and mash in some leeks, garlic, and green herbs, then leave it to bubble away in its own good time. The elementary pattern these Mesopotamian recipes took was: prepare water, add fat and salt to taste; add meat, leeks, and garlic; cook in the pot; maybe add fresh coriander or mint; and serve.

Kitchens are places of violence.

Kitchen technology is not just about how well something works on its own terms—whether it produces the most delicious food—but about all the things that surround it: kitchen design; our attitude to danger and risk; pollution; the lives of women and servants; how we feel about red meat, indeed about meat in general; social and family structures; the state of metallurgy.

Many of us cling to particular vessels, fetishizing over this mug or that plate.

Our kitchens are filled with ghosts. You may not see them, but you could not cook as you do without their ingenuity: the potters who first enabled us to boil and stew; the knife forgers; the resourceful engineers who designed the first refrigerators; the pioneers of gas and electric ovens; the scale makers; the inventors of eggbeaters and peelers.

So great is the feeling of freedom that the food processor brings to its middle-class devotees—I include myself—we should be careful not to delude ourselves that it has really saved all labor. The medieval housewife making pancakes in Le Ménagier de Paris stood face to face with the people she was wearying, whereas our servants have mainly been removed from view. We do not see the hands in the chicken factory that boned the breasts, never mind the chickens that gave their lives, nor the workers who labored to assemble the parts of our whizzy food processors. We only see a pile of ingredients and a machine ready to do our bidding. Alone in our kitchens, we feel entirely emancipated.

Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” This is certainly true in the kitchen. Tools are not neutral objects. They change with changing social context. A mortar and pestle was a different thing for the Roman slave forced to pound up highly amalgamated mixtures for hours on end for his master’s enjoyment than it is for me: a pleasing object with which I make pesto for fun, on a whim.

Technology is not a form of robotics but something very human: the creation of tools and techniques that answer certain uses in our lives.

Technology is the art of the possible.

The earliest recipes on record come from Mesopotamia (the site of modern-day Iraq, Iran, and Syria). They are written in cuneiform on three stone tablets, approximately 4,000 years old, offering a tantalizing glimpse of how the Mesopotamians might have cooked. The vast majority of the recipes are for pot cooking, most of them for broths and court bouillons. “Assemble all the ingredients in the pot” is a frequent instruction.

The fact that the juice does not pucker my mouth with bitterness is thanks to a female inventor, Linda C. Brewster, who in the 1970s was granted four patents for “debittering” orange juice by reducing the presence of acrid limonin.

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.

There's a joke about a man who tested his blade using his tongue: sharp blades taste like metal; really sharp blades taste like blood.

The Romans also had beautifully made metal colanders and bronze chafing dishes, flattish metal patinae, vast cauldrons of brass and bronze, pastry molds in varying ornate shapes, fish kettles, frying pans with special pouring lips to dispense the sauce and handles that folded up. Much of what has remained looks disconcertingly modern. The range of Roman metal cookware was still impressing the chef Alexis Soyer in 1853. Soyer was particularly taken with a very high-tech sounding two-tiered vessel called the authepsa (the name means “self-boiling”). Like a modern steamer, it came in two layers, made of Corinthian brass. The top compartment, said Soyer, could be used for gently cooking “light delicacies destined for dessert.” It was a highly valued utensil. Cicero describes one authepsa being sold at auction for such a high price that bystanders assumed the thing being sold was an entire farm.

The subtext of all table manners is the fear that the man next to you may pull his knife on you.

The technology of food matters even when we barely notice it is there. From fire onward, there is a technology behind everything we eat, whether we recognize it or not. Behind every loaf of bread, there is an oven. Behind a bowl of soup, there is a pan and a wooden spoon (unless it comes from a can, another technology altogether). Behind every restaurant-kitchen foam, there will be a whipping canister, charged with N2O.

The term curfew now means a time by which someone—usually a teenager—has to get home. The original curfew was a kitchen object: a large metal cover placed over the embers at night to contain the fire while people slept.

The United States is today one of only three countries not to have officially adopted the French metric system. The other two are Liberia and Myanmar (Burma).

This technological stagnation reflects a harsh truth. There was very little interest in attempting to save labor when the labor in question was not your own.

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.

...when owning our own set of gleaming pans, all matching -- as opposed to the assorted chipped-enamel vessels of student days -- seemed mysteriously grown up.