How the Fork, the Pot, and the Oven Changed the Way Humans Lived

Food writer Bee Wilson explains how kitchen technologies have changed the human body and the economy.

By + More

Since the Stone Age, when humans learned to make tools, there has been an evolution in the preparation and consumption of food. Some kitchen technologies, like the oven and the refrigerator, have transformed gender roles and economies. Less recognized gadgets, like the cooking pot and the fork, have even physically changed the human body. In Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, historian and food writer Bee Wilson charts the evolution of kitchen innovations and traditions. Wilson recently spoke to U.S. News about the history of kitchen tools and their significance. Excerpts:

Does what you cook and eat with matter?

What you cook and eat with hugely matters. I think we've underestimated how much the tools and techniques of the kitchen are important. And I realized more and more as I was writing this book that the tools and techniques really can transform everything, from the cultural connotations of food to its nutritional value to how it tastes.

Is there a relationship between obesity and the techniques used to prepare food today?

There's a growing body of evidence suggesting that the way we think of nutritional values is really far too narrow because it doesn't take into account processing. And there has been a series of studies done showing that to the extent the food is processed, how finely it's chopped, the degree to which it's cooked, hugely affects the amount of energy we can then derive from the food.

[Check out U.S. News Weekly, and insider's guide to politics and policy.]

How else have kitchen tools affected the human body?

I was startled to come across the work of this anthropologist, Charles Loring Brace, who argues that there was this change in the entire structure of human jaws around 250 years ago. And the only plausible explanation for this is the adoption of the knife and fork at the table. You see the change happening in China around 900 years earlier, the reason being chopsticks. The overbite happened quite suddenly in response to the adoption of the knife and fork, and obviously the time frame is far too short for that to be any sort of an evolutionary change—it's just something that happens in childhood based on how we use our teeth.

How did the fork become an eating utensil?

Its roots are in Italy. They [adopted] forks from medieval time onwards, the reason being pasta. Forks are the perfect instruments for twiddling long noodles or spaghetti.

How was it received in the rest of Europe?

They thought the fork was either something really silly, this kind of effeminate thing that real men wouldn't use. Or it had kind of satanic connotations because of the devil's pitchfork.

[See photos as the White House Unveils 2012 Holiday Decorations.]

When did forks become standard cutlery?

It took a while. In medieval times, people would travel to Italy and sometimes come back with forks. They were used from Elizabethan times, let's say the 16th century, for sweetmeats. But it was really only in the late 18th century that it became absolutely standard to lay a knife and fork at the table.

How did the cooking pot affect culture?

The moment, around 10,000 years ago, that people started cooking things in pots, for me that's the beginning of proper cuisine, rather than just mere heating. Until you have a cooking pot, you can't engage in any of that kind of intermingling of flavors, which really is the essence of all great cooking. And it also [had] a really dramatic impact on the human body, because archaeologists found that until the adoption of the cooking pot, no one who had lost all of their teeth would survive into adulthood. Chewing was a completely essential survival skill. [With] cooking pots, and the consequent ability to cook things down to a porridge consistency, suddenly people who don't have their teeth can survive.

[See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.]

What impact did the invention of the home oven have on human life?

The enclosure of the oven is part of this progressive closing off of the fire in our lives. If you think how people would have cooked for most of history, the focus both of the kitchen—and of human life in general—was an open fire. The very meaning of the word "focus" comes from the Latin for fireplace. You look at the modern kitchen with its microwave and its gas cooktops, and its various cooking devices with on/off switches—fire is something that we can just summon at will. Ice, in the form of the refrigerator, rather than the fire, has become the new focus.