To start with the writing: Wilson writes beautifully. Her prose is clear, occasionally whimsical, sensible, and altogether a delight to read. It’s not that often that I read 280 pages of history in just over a day, even when I’m on holidays. In fact at one point I tried to put it away because I was worried I would finish it too quickly (I was away from my bookshelf; I was feeling a bit irrational, ok?). Her love of food and history and cooking come through clearly; she mingles the occasional personal anecdote with what’s clearly broad-ranging research. But she also doesn’t get bogged down in the research – she’s not aiming to construct a thorough, blow by blow account of the development of cooking or food technology. She’s writing for an educated but non-professional audience and she does it really well.
The chapters are organised around probably the most important aspects of cooking and its technology: pots and pans; knives; fire; measuring; grinding (I admit this one surprised me a little); eating; ice; and the kitchen itself. In each chapter she gives some of the current thinking about where and if possible how the technology began (in some instances in the Palaeolithic, in others more recently), and then – depending on the objects – skims through the ancient world, the medieval, and the early modern.
My main quibble with the book is its European preponderance, but I do wonder whether I’m being overly sensitive about that. There’s a wonderful section about the Chinese knife, the tou; and a discussion about the difference in fork+knife vs chopsticks; some about the differences in wok cooking opposed to more European methods; and other mentions as well. I wonder if there’s more history done on this from a European perspective – or that’s translated into English anyway. Although if that’s the case I would have liked a mention of the dearth of literature.
Another small quibble is that sometimes her language implies that the changes in cooking technology were things that the population had just been waiting for. While that might be true for can openers (invented FIFTY YEARS after the invention of the tin, I kid you not), sometimes it grated a little: to whit: “At last, these people [the ancient Greeks] had discovered the joy of cooking with pots and pans” (12). I get what she means but it grated a little.
Anyway. A few gems include ideas for future ice cream experiments (burnt almond, orange flower water, cinnamon, apricot, quince; bitter cherry; muscat pear…), the history of the refrigerator and freezer and how they show differences between the English and Americans post-WW2, and developments from coal to gas to electricity in terms of stoves. Also the thing about the tin opener. SO WEIRD.
Overall this is a joyous book that I highly recommend if you’re into food and history, especially both at the same time. Her writing really is marvellous, you might learn something, and it re-inspired me to get into my kitchen and make something. (Which was annoying because I was on holidays, but whatevs.)