Whatever our political views, in the kitchen, we’re all conservative. For example, I know very well it’s quicker and easier to microwave stuff like baked beans and porridge – helpful people keep telling me so – yet the Luddite crone inside me persists in using the hob, just like my mum. Similarly, the “deluxe” brown sauce lies untouched at the back of the cupboard, studiously ignored by my HP-guzzling housemates. If it ain’t broke . . .
Such trifling attachments can be surprisingly emotional and I felt rather hurt when I heard the Lancashire potato peeler described as “bothersome” and inefficient in Bee Wilson’s new book, Consider the Fork: a History of Invention in the Kitchen – that cheery orangestringed implement has been part of my life for as long as I can remember and I’ve got no complaints (well, apart from the obvious one – peeling’s dull work, whatever you use to do it). Even checking out the ergonomic modern alternative online felt like treachery to my friend in the drawer.
As the book points out, “our kitchens are full of ghosts” – the knowledge, habits and, yes, the battered equipment of those that have gone before us. On my counter sits a stone pestle and mortar whose design has changed little in 20,000 years, next to it is a Kitchenaid mixer almost identical to the company’s 1937 model: in fact, the only thing my grandmother wouldn’t recognise here is the rather fancy new sous-vide machine in the corner.
It’s shiny, plastic proof that we can all stomach a certain degree of innovation in the service of our appetites – if not, surely humanity would never have bothered with cooking in the first place. Small modifications, beloved peelers aside, are easier to accept – non-stick pans are simpler to use than traditional cast-iron ones and steel knives cut cleaner than their iron predecessors but both work in much the same way as the things they replaced. Trauma averted.
Bigger changes, however, take longer to win our trust. As far as I’m concerned, the microwave hasn’t yet proved itself and, according to Wilson’s endlessly fascinating book, our great grandparents felt much the same about the fridge. In 1948, only 2 per cent of British households owned such a gadget: such was the general European antipathy towards the idea that the French refrigeration industry coined the term frigoriphobie, to describe those, like the customers and merchants of Paris’s Les Halles market, who feared chilling would force prices up and quality down.
Americans, who had no such qualms regarding cold storage, display the same stubborn attachment to imprecise volume measurements; to this day, few US home cooks own a set of scales, preferring to rely on their 19th-century measuring cups. Bee Wilson claims that, “to American ears, there is something cold, inhuman almost, about the European practice of quantifying ingredients in grams”.
I suspect we’re both in the same boat when it comes to that sous-vide machine, though – default technology for modernist chefs but plain old “boil in the bag” to most people. I happen to use mine more than the microwave but the jury’s still out on whether vacuum sealers and water baths will be as much a part of the kitchen of the future as the hob has been for the past two centuries, or if this gadget will go the way of the Hanoverian mustard spoon and the Sixties chicken brick.
The benefit of being truly modern cooks is that we can have our cake and eat it: splash out for the sous-vide machine if we have the yen and the means, while keeping our spluttery gas hob, and our grandmother’s cast-iron pans for everyday – not just for sentimental reasons, but because they still work. Centrifuges and pipettes are all very well but, as Bee Wilson wisely observes, “nothing does the job of a wooden spoon better than a wooden spoon”.