It must be time for The Holidays, since suddenly the weekly sales flyers are full of roasters, deep-fryers, utensils that look more like scientific implements than kitchen gadgets, and of course cookbooks of every classification. My culinary aspirations are almost entirely observational, but I may have to look for a copy of a book on “the kitchen, and all its wonders” reviewed by Alice Rawsthorn in the NYTimes
One of the most sought-after objects in Ancient Roman homes was an elaborate cooking contraption known as an authepsa. Made of the finest Corinthian brass, it fulfilled a similar function to a modern steamer. Cicero recalled one selling for such a high price at auction that some onlookers thought that a farm had been sold, not a cooking pot.
Not that today’s trophy cookware costs quite as much as a farm, but the authepsa was the Ancient Roman equivalent of the stratospherically expensive ovens that now promise to bake soufflés at a temperature set to the nearest 0.01 degree, and fashionably laboratorial gizmos like centrifuges, compressors and homogenizers.
The evolution of the tools we have used for cooking and eating is the theme of a new book, “Consider the Fork: A History of Invention in the Kitchen,” by the British food writer and historian Bee Wilson. Every so often a book appears that may not necessarily have set out to be about design, but provides fascinating insights into its impact on a particular field. This book does so by exploring how the design not only of the fork, but of everything else that has been used to prepare and consume food over the centuries has determined what has been eaten in different eras, and its impact on people’s health, well-being and behavior…
… Ms. Wilson traces the impact of the culinary innovations of the Bronze Age and Iron Age, then Ancient Greece and Rome, where numerous food tools were invented, including the pricey authepsa. Diets became richer and more varied, but after the fall of the Roman Empire, many of those utensils disappeared, and for centuries most cooks were dependent on a single pot, typically a cauldron, that they used for everything.
Those cauldrons were cooked on blisteringly hot open hearths, which could be dirty, smelly and dangerous. The cooks in wealthy households were almost all men, because women’s flowing robes were considered to be fire risks. As male cooks often worked naked or in their underclothes, it was deemed unseemly for female servants to see them, and they were confined to dairies and sculleries. Open hearth cooking disappeared in many European countries with the adoption of closed brick chimneys and cast iron fire grates during the 16th and 17th centuries. Kitchens became cleaner, women were hired as cooks, shiny brass and pewter pots replaced grimy cast iron cauldrons, and the trophy kitchenware phenomenon began….
I can almost hear McMegan asking anxiously, “But can an authepsa produce a perfect hollandaise for me, every time?”
What’s on everyone’s shopping lists for your kitchens this season? Is there a new aspirational gadget to replace the $1500 Thermomix? A cookbook that finally answers those burning questions about not burning the roast? A professional-class upgrade to the short list of essential knives, pots, or implements that should be more widely known?