Consider the Fork
by Bee Wilson

Basic Books, 2012. ISBN 978-0-465-02176-5.
Reviewed by Olga Livshin
Posted on 01/04/2013

Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: Food/Cooking/Kitchen

Consider the Fork is a fascinating book, taking us on a journey around the globe and across millennia. The author explores the history of domestic kitchen, its appliances and utensils, some of which have persisted for centuries while others are long forgotten.

According to Consider the Fork, kitchen utensils are part of our culture. How we cook and eat often determines who and what we are, at least to a degree. Written in a clear, precise language, with abundant examples, Consider the Fork draws from Wilson's profound knowledge of the field of food and her exhaustive research. Wilson's passion for cooking also permeates the pages, making this nonfiction volume wonderfully captivating.

Consider the Fork is divided into chapters, each highlighting one aspect of food preparation, from its ancient beginnings and technical and social innovations to the kitchens of today. The first chapter is dedicated to the kitchen pot.

No kitchen today exists without pots and pans. The pot is so essential to our kitchens, we often take it for granted, but in the beginning the clay pot was one of the greatest inventions of human culture. The author insists that the emergence of pottery marked the first industrial revolution. Before the pot, people who couldn't chew stringy meat roasted over a fire starved. When the first clay cooking vessels appeared about 6000 to 3000 BC, soft mushy food—soup or porridge—became available, thus allowing older people, and people without teeth, to eat and survive. Besides extending human life expectancy, the pot also marked a switch from nomadic to settled lifestyle and from gathering and hunting to agriculture. A revolution indeed!

From pots, the author takes readers to the other mandatory items in any kitchen—knives and fire. Both have been used in cooking for centuries, in one aspect or another, despite their inherent and potential dangers. Reading about the mankind's quests to harness the kitchen fire—from an open hearth to an electric range—or about the society's changing attitude towards knives was almost as engrossing as a thriller.

Wilson's food-wise erudition sparkles, as she not only provides the reader with serious historical overviews and gastronomical mysteries but also shared come amusing tidbits of information. For example, is it possible that our perfect overbite, which dentists insist is not the natural teeth position, is instead the result of a knife's work in a kitchen? Wilson mentions anthropological studies that suggest this is so. If we still tore meat from bones with our teeth, as our ancestors did, our teeth would meet edge to edge, and the overbite wouldn't have developed. It's not an evolutionary mutation, but a habitual feature of the human face, like calluses.

Surprisingly, the funniest section of Consider the Fork involves a rather dry topic—measurements. We all measure ingredients when we cook, but only Americans traditionally measure in cups. How much is a cup anyway? There are bigger cups and smaller cups. Clever Europeans avoid such confusion by measuring weight. Does it really matter? After all, our grannies didn't always have kitchen scales; they measured in handfuls or, the terror of terrors for a young cook: "as much as it takes." But their cakes were always good.

Gleaning her facts from historical memoirs, housewives' magazines and culinary mores, Wilson's created an engaging story about our food and people who prepare it. Food staples and obsolete cooking methods, the molecular physics of cooking and the social changes inspired by new technologies, cooks' traditional mistrust of innovations and the eating etiquette—they've all found their way into her book. The only fault I found with Consider the Fork is its lack of photographs. I wouldn't mind seeing some of the outdated kitchen gadgets Wilson talks about, or the new ones. The few pencil sketches sprinkled among the pages wasn't a good substitution. Otherwise, almost perfect and highly recommended.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Bee Wilson is a food writer, historian, and author of three previous books, including Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee. She has been named BBC Radio's Food Writer of the Year and is a three-time Guild of Food Writers' Food Journalist of the Year. Wilson served as the food columnist for the New Statesman for five years, and currently writes a weekly food column for the Sunday Telegraph's Stella magazine. She holds a Ph.D. from Trinity College, Cambridge, and lives in Cambridge, England. Visit the book website.

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