The History of Cooking and Other New Books, Reviewed

Why should we consider the fork? And a new biography of the ill-fated George Armstrong Custer

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat Courtesy of Basic Books

Consider the Fork
by Bee Wilson
To the extent that we devote any prolonged thought to the items on our plate, it’s probably to obsess over the ingredients. Are they organic, low-fat, whole-grain, local, genetically modified, raised with loving care? But what about all the tools we use to get things down our gullet? Bee Wilson’s spirited history of kitchen implements ranges from the humble wooden spoon to the cutting-edge sous vide machine. A British food writer and historian, Wilson is learned and personal, wise and charming. “There are fork cultures and there are chopstick cultures, but all the people of the world use spoons,” she writes sternly, then admits: “As an eccentric and somewhat troubled teenager, for several years I ate all my food...with a teaspoon.” Wilson bases each chapter on a single theme, like knives, fire or ice, but her simple premises lead to fascinating cultural inquiries. Why is the standard table knife not sharp? “In 1669, cutlers were forbidden by...Louis XIV from forging pointed dinner knives in France,” Wilson writes. The aversion supposedly began four decades earlier, when a royal adviser was appalled by the sight of a dinner guest picking his teeth with a sharp knife. Why do we use cups and teaspoons for dry ingredients? Because of one phenomenally successful book: the Boston Cooking School Cookbook of 1896, which popularized the system and sold 360,000 copies by 1915. Another morsel: Today, China apparently cannot produce enough disposable wooden chopsticks and relies on a U.S. supplier in Georgia. There are complex investigations at work in Wilson’s book; it’s nominally about things in our cabinets and on our shelves, but it’s really about family, labor, technology, sensation. “If time was measured through prayer,” Wilson writes, describing how old-time recipes gave cooking periods in prayers (boil a walnut for two Miserere), “heat was measured through pain.” Before thermometers, fingers had to do the deed. From such ingredients an enchanting book is made.

The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body
by Frances Ashcroft
Even if the concept of a neuron or a neurotransmitter is a little hazy, you can probably piece together a basic understanding of the way you perceive the world: receive a signal, send it to the brain. But what you might not realize is just how crucial electricity is to this process, and to all that goes on within our bodies. Flex a muscle, see a sunset, smell a flower, think a thought—at a molecular level, these actions are controlled by the flow of charged particles across cell membranes. In a pleasing mix of history, experimental anecdote and hard science (some of the illustrations might bring back memories—for better or worse—of biology class), Ashcroft, a physiologist at Oxford University, paints such a convincing picture of electricity’s crucial role that it seems a wonder we don’t perpetually crackle to the touch. One-third of the oxygen we breathe and half the food we consume is used to maintain electric charges across cell membranes. A baby’s first breath is, in a sense, an electrical response, a rapid flow of ions that helps drain water from the lungs. Other creatures display more obvious evidence of electricity’s importance. The shock from one electric eel can power several light bulbs—or kill a person. Ashcroft is at her most beguiling when she strays into history. In the early 19th century, she writes, before the science was really understood, showmen applied electric currents to the almost still-warm corpses of recently executed criminals to artificially animate their bodies. “The jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened,” one observer wrote. (Such a demonstration may have inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.) When the first (external) pacemakers entered use, to control the electric impulses that contract heart muscles, they were about as large as washing machines. The science, thankfully, has evolved; a pacemaker is now about the size of a wristwatch, and may someday be no larger than a vitamin capsule.

by Larry McMurtry
There are plenty of comprehensive biographies of George Armstrong Custer, but thoroughness wasn’t Larry McMurtry’s aim when he set out to write this brief treatment. “I was attracted to the notion of a short life of Custer because the short life is in itself such a lovely form.” (This from the author of the 843-page Lonesome Dove.) And what McMurtry has produced is indeed appealing, with vivid images of Custer, his family and his battles. When captured in oil on canvas, he was a larger-than-life figure; when hamming it up for the camera with his wife, he was endearingly human. And of course he was flawed. Custer barely graduated from West Point and was court-martialed in 1867 for a failure of command against American Indians in Kansas. (He was recalled to the Army not long after his dismissal.) Despite the lengthy consideration that the author has obviously given his subject—McMurtry says in passing that he once owned more than a thousand items of Custerology—this is no hagiography. “If Custer signally lacked something,” McMurtry writes, “it was what the rest of the world calls a conscience.” And of Little Big Horn, the disastrous 1876 battle that cost Custer his life and earned him a place in the hall of the infamous, McMurtry says there is no more “touching comment” than that of one Pvt. Thomas Coleman: “Oh what a slaughter how many homes made desolate by the Sad disaster.”

Dancers Among Us: A Celebration of Joy in the Everyday
by Jordan Matter
It’s a rare book that contains anything of interest on the copyright page, but this caught my eye: “No trampolines or other devices were used in the taking of the photographs in this book, and the dancers’ poses have not been digitally enhanced or altered.” It’s not hard to see why the author felt that such a disclaimer was necessary; the photographs in this book are unbelievable. Matter photographs dancers posing in everyday environments doing extraordinary things: leaping through the air as they cross a busy Chicago thoroughfare, balancing precariously on a subway platform in New York City, seeming to levitate above a bed of daffodils. The awesome and bizarre physical feats that these dancers perform are heightened by the stunning settings in which the acts take place. Each page prompts wonder: How can anyone do that—and how can anyone do that there? (I’m not alone in my amazement, judging from the raised eyebrows on the faces captured in the background.) Matter’s goal to reawaken ordinary experience by inserting dramatic movement into it can sometimes be a little cloying—no one would call the emotions that this book evokes subtle—but I found it impossible not to smile at these sometimes genuinely moving compositions. A suspended woman, wedged between the columns of a condemned house in New Orleans, conveys the trauma of recent events as poignantly as any work of journalism.

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