- posted in: Consider the Fork
From the Introduction
A WOODEN SPOON—MOST TRUSTY AND LOVABLE OF KITCHEN implements—looks like the opposite of “technology,” as the word is normally understood. It does not switch on and off or make funny noises. It has no patent or guarantee. There is nothing futuristic or shiny or clever about it.
But look closer at one of your wooden spoons (I’m assuming you have at least one, because I’ve never been in any kitchen that didn’t). Feel the grain. Is it a workmanlike beech factory spoon or a denser maple wood or olive wood whittled by an artisan? Now look at the shape. Is it oval or round? Slotted or solid? Cupped or flat? Perhaps it has a pointy part on one side to get at the lumpy bits in the corner of the pan.
Maybe the handle is extra short, for a child to use, or extra long, to give your hand a position of greater safety from a hot skillet. Countless decisions—economic and social as well as those pertaining to design and applied engineering—will have gone into the making of this object. And these in turn will affect the way this device enables you to cook. The wooden spoon is a quiet ensemble player in so many meals that we take it for granted. We do not give it credit for the eggs it has scrambled, the chocolate it has helped to melt, the onions it has saved from burning with a quick twirl.
The wooden spoon does not look particularly sophisticated—traditionally, it was given as a booby prize to the loser of a competition—but it has science on its side. Wood is nonabrasive and therefore gentle on pans—you can scrape away without fear of scarring the metal surface. It is nonreactive: you need not worry that it will leave a metallic taste or that its surface will degrade on contact with acidic citrus or tomatoes.
It is also a poor conductor of heat, which is why you can stir hot soup with a wooden spoon without burning your hand. Above and beyond its functionality, however, we cook with wooden spoons because we always have. They are part of our civilization. Tools are first adopted because they meet a certain need or solve a particular problem, but over time the utensils we feel happy using are mainly determined by culture. In the age of stainless steel pans, it is perfectly possible to use a metal spoon for stirring without ruining your vessels, but to do so feels obscurely wrong. The hard metal angles smash your carefully diced vegetables and the handle does not grip so companionably as you stir. It clanks disagreeably, in contrast to the gentle tapping of wood.
In this plastic age, you might expect that we would have taken to stirring with synthetic spatulas, especially because wooden spoons don’t do well in dishwashers (over many washes, they tend to soften and split); but on the whole, this is not so. I saw a bizarre product in a kitchenware shop recently: “wooden silicone spoons,” on sale for eight times the price of a basic beech spoon. They were garishly colored, heavy plastic kitchen spoons in the shape of a wooden spoon. Apart from that, there was nothing wooden about them. Yet the manufacturers felt that they needed to allude to wood to win a place in our hearts and kitchens.
There are so many things we take for granted when we cook: we stir with wooden spoons but eat with metal ones (we used to eat with wood, too); we have strong views on things that should be served hot and things that must remain raw. Certain ingredients we boil; others, we freeze or fry or grind. Many of these actions we perform instinctively, or by obediently following a recipe. It is perfectly clear to anyone who prepares Italian food that a risotto should be cooked with the gradual addition of liquid, whereas pasta needs to be boiled fast in an excess of water, but why?* Most aspects of cooking are far less obvious than they first appear; and there is almost always another way of doing things. Think of the utensils that were not adopted, for whatever reason: the water-powered egg whisk, the magnet-operated spit roaster. It took countless inventions, small and large, to get to the well-equipped kitchens we have now, where our old low-tech friend the wooden spoon is joined by mixers, freezers, and microwaves; but the history is largely unseen and unsung.
Traditional histories of technology do not pay much attention to food. They tend to focus on hefty industrial and military developments: wheels and ships, gunpowder and telegraphs, airships and radio. When food is mentioned, it is usually in the context of agriculture—systems of tillage and irrigation—rather than the domestic work of the kitchen. But there is just as much invention in a nutcracker as in a bullet. Often, inventors have been working on something for military use, only to find that its best use is in the kitchen. Harry Brearley was a Sheffield man who invented stainless steel in 1913 as a way of improving gun barrels; inadvertently, he improved the world’s cutlery. Percy Spencer, creator of the microwave oven, was working on naval radar systems when he happened upon an entirely new method of cooking.
Our kitchens owe much to the brilliance of science, and a cook experimenting with mixtures at the stove is often not very different from a chemist in the lab: we add vinegar to red cabbage to fix the color and use baking soda to counteract the acidity of lemon in a cake. It is wrong to suppose, however, that technology is just the appliance of scientific thought. It is something more basic and older than this. Not every culture has had formal science—a form of organized knowledge about the universe that starts with Aristotle in the fourth century BC. The modern scientific method, in which experiments form part of a structured system of hypothesis, experimentation, and analysis is as recent as the seventeenth century; the problem-solving technology of cooking goes back thousands of years. Since the earliest Stone Age humans hacking away at raw food with sharpened flints, we have always used invention to devise better ways to feed ourselves.
* You might reply: because risotto needs to be starchy and creamy, whereas slippery pasta benefits from having some of its starch washed away in the water. But this still begs the question. Pasta can be delicious cooked risotto-style, particularly the small rice-shaped orzo, with the incremental addition of wine and stock. Equally, risotto-style rice can be very good with a single large addition of liquid at the beginning, as with paella.