Consider the Fork – Bee Wilson – Alison Larkin

The overriding impression of this book is that it is very, very British. Not entirely because of the reader, Alison Larkin (who is very British), or because of too much of an Anglo-centric focus in the history it covers (maybe a bit, but not enough to take issue with) – but mostly because of… well, there’s the casual and frequent mention of kebabs and the *ahem* wrong use of “chips” and so on, but mostly it’s the almost patronizing tone taken about the United States.

Everything was going along just fine – I was entertained and informed, always my favorite combination – till I hit the chapter on measurements. According to the author, the US is the only first-world country to inexplicably cling to the bizarre and impossibly inaccurate method of measurement standardized by Fanny Farmer, using cups and teaspoons and tablespoons. Everyone else in the civilized world, she says, measures by weight, which makes SO much more sense and is SO much more accurate.

While I have seen British recipes using weights (and skipped over most of them, not willing to do the work to find the website to help me convert them), I never realized that we are the lone rebels in the cooking world, resolutely measuring a quarter-cup of this and half a teaspoon of that. Interesting. As much as our method seems odd to Bee Wilson, weighing everything seems to me like a huge pain in the butt.

Seriously? The rest of the world weighs, say, a teaspoon of vanilla? How the heck does that work? And doesn’t that dirty even more containers or utensils than our way? Doesn’t it all take much longer, and where the heck do you stash a scale when you’re not using it? I have no counter space as it is; the thought of going from cups-tossed-in-a-drawer to yet-another-appliance-on-the-counter gives me a headache. How big is the thing?

Now, what she says does make sense; I never thought about how different one cupful of whatever can be from the next, depending on a person’s method of measurement and the kitchen’s humidity and the phases of the moon. The way she tells it, we must be a land of flat cakes and rock-hard cookies and all around complete disasters in the kitchen.

But here’s the thing. I’ve been baking since I was ten, and cooking since a few years after that, and – not to brag, just saying – I’d say 95% of everything I’ve made has come out just as I’d intended. I’ve had cheesecakes crack; I’ve had cookies spread more than I wanted; but every cake I’ve made has risen (not all as high as I’d like, but they all did rise), and so on. So, while it does make sense that my cupful may differ from yours, and mine today might differ from mine four years ago, and that baking requires exactitude in measuring … um. Sorry. My experience just doesn’t bear it out. And you know what? It’s not just me. I can’t say I remember ever seeing a cooking show on the Food Network or PBS that featured a chef (or plain old cook) using a scale instead of measuring implements. Even the snobbier end of the spectrum, exemplified by Martha Stewart (no relation) and the Barefoot Contessa, use the same old cups and spoons – and so does America’s Test Kitchen. If weighing was so very superior, I would expect Martha and Ina to insist upon it, and if ATK – whose primary concern is determining the best and most reliable way to do and make just about everything – doesn’t … Then, Ms. Wilson (and Ms. Larkin), you can rid your voices of that tone of marveling condescension. In the end your method is different, not better.

So there.

(I feel constrained to add that one reason an individual baker using the cup-measurement system may achieve a level of consistency is experience. I know when a batter is a bit thin, and add more flour; if it’s a bit too floury I know how to correct. There’s a natural personal consistency that comes with using the same utensils and measuring devices all the time. And I know how to adjust flavor as I go along. I suppose that’s the point of the whole scales-are-better-than-cups argument; my cookies probably aren’t going to be the same as yours. I for one prefer it that way. Consistency is necessary for restaurant chains and trying to recreate Mom’s scones or such, but otherwise? My cookies are my cookies, and yours are yours, and that’s the way it should be.)

Speaking of tones of voice, for the most part Alison Larkin is an excellent narrator. There’s a sense of humor to the book, and Ms. Larkin plumbs those depths quite nicely. She has a very pleasant voice, and a very pleasant accent, except … The only objection I have is when she reads a quote from an American writer (seriously, these two do not seem to see Americans as worth much respect) she switches into a pseudo-American accent which sounds more like mockery than a genuine attempt at dialect.

Anyway. Gripes aside, this is (as mentioned) an entertaining and informative exploration of how the preparation and consumption of food has evolved through the millennia. It’s fascinating stuff, invaluable to a writer of period pieces, and just fun for those who, as I do, love to look more closely at everyday things. Well done.

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