Consider the fork. And the pot, the pan, the spoon, and the knife, especially the important knife.
For that matter, nearly everything we use to cook and eat with deserves due thought and consideration, partly because it is so commonplace and partly because it is so greatly curious how we have come to land upon these utensils and related techniques in our pursuit of eating.
Fortunately, Bee Wilson came out with a lovely book published late last year called just that: Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, which nicely gets us out of the hot water when it comes to scooting about on the web looking for answers, and not always knowing how accurate or informed the informer is.
Consider the Fork is an assured balance of social and culinary history and anthropology. Besides making for a delightful read, it also includes wise culinary tips Wilson has culled from her deep well of knowledge.
A former research fellow in the history of ideas at St John's College, Cambridge, Wilson has been writing "The Kitchen Thinker" food column for The Sunday Telegraph's Stella magazine for years. Prior to that she was food critic for the New Statesman, a British political and cultural weekly published since 1913. One of her columns discussed Adolf Hitler's diet. In between she's written for numerous publications, including the London Review of Books, as well as two other unexpectedly quirky and interesting books on food: The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us and Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee.
But back to those culinary tips. One of them was particularly interesting to me after a recent conversation with my favourite farmers' market egg supplier. Mike knows we love his farm's full-flavoured eggs and he was assuring me they don't need refrigeration. Apparently he and his farm mates just grab their eggs out of the hen house and keep them on the kitchen counter until they need them. A quick wash off and Bob's your uncle, or at least your fried egg.
I was a little surprised at this news, especially given the hot and humid weather lately. Also, I wondered, if that's the case, then why all the expense of refrigeration for eggs in transport and at the store. So I put my eggs in the fridge once I got home.
Bee Wilson to the rescue. In her chapter called "Ice," which has to do with all things refrigeration, she explains that Mike and I are both half-right. In cool climates, eggs are better if stored out of the fridge, as Mike says, at least if we use them up quickly. "A room-temperature yolk is less likely to break when you fry it," she writes, a tip I could well use as I often break them. But, she warns, our room temperatures may not be the same as hers.
According to a 2007 study done in Japan, when eggs infected with salmonella were stored at 10 C (50 F) for six weeks, there was no growth in bacteria. Even at 20 C (68 F) bacterial growth was negligible. However, once room temperature rose to 25 C (77 F), which is as hot as our kitchen has been these past few weeks, if not hotter, salmonella growth is "rampant." So I'm glad I popped my eggs in the fridge, but I'll be sure to set them out before next Sunday's breakfast and see if I don't get fewer broken yolks when their sunny sides are up.
As for the historical bits, which will make you rethink so much in your kitchen, I'll start with basics. When it comes to recipes — where else would you start? — Wilson tells us that the earliest recorded ones found so far come from Mesopotamia (where Iraq, Iran and Syria are located today) and date back 4,000 years.
They were rendered in cuneiform on three stone tablets and, for the most part, are all about how to cook in one pot, mostly things like broths and court boullions. "Assemble all the ingredients in the pot" is a frequent instruction, she says.