Nothing does the job of a wooden spoon better than a wooden spoon. Photograph: Getty Images
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You can’t teach your granny to use a sous-vide

Sometimes the oldest kitchen inventions are the best.

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”.

 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap