“The food we cook is not only an assemblage of ingredients. It is the product of technologies, past and present.”
Food writer Bee Wilson does a really great job of looking at the history of how we cook and eat; it’s a look at kitchen utensils and cooking methods that we now take for granted. The modern kitchen and its contents evolved over time around the cooking practices of their day and were dependent on a number of factors that we are most likely unaware of. With artful sketches by Annabel Lee gracing each chapter, Wilson looks into things like pots and pans, knives, fire, measurement, refrigeration, and things as simple as the humble wooden spoon, the indispensable chopping knife, and the clever vegetable peeler. The history is fascinating and Wilson’s writing style is engaging. She has done her homework and relays the information in an entertaining manner.
This is a great book for anyone who enjoys cooking and is interested in how we as humans have evolved in our domesticity (also makes me think of Bill Bryson’s book At Home). Even though it contains not a single recipe, it does provide inspiration and a new respect for being in the kitchen and cooking even a simple meal.
Disney’s Pocahontas has some pointed lines in the song “Colors of the Wind” about the curious fact that there were people already in place when foreigners sailed from other lands and claimed the Americas for themselves. “You think I’m an ignorant savage, And you’ve been so many places, I guess it must be so, But still I cannot see, If the savage one is me, How can there be so much that you don’t know? You think you own whatever land you land on, The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim, But I know every rock and tree and creature Has a life, has a spirit, has a name.”
However, King points out how often Indians/First Nations/Aboriginals/Indigenous people are mis-portrayed in Hollywood versions such as Pocahontas. Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian was a contender in Canada Reads 2015 as a book to “break barriers.” Craig Kielburger championed the book saying, “Thomas King is one of Canada’s foremost aboriginal intellects, but as a young boy playing Cowboys and Indians, no one wanted to be the Indian, not even him.” There is an interesting interview King has with Shelagh Rogers on CBC, that is also included as an appendix to the print edition of the book.
Next Chapter Interview with Shelagh Rogers
King demonstrates how almost everything we thought we knew about Native people in North America is wrong and gives a corrected historical account of what happened. With his dry sense of humour (which never descends into snarkiness), and his keen eye for the issues, he provides an overview that is both educational and entertaining. The goal of the new Europeans was always to assimilate and/or exterminate Native peoples and their culture. Residential schools were the most blatant and heinous example of “Kill the Indian, save the man.” The abuse that so many children suffered in those schools silenced not only their language and cultural expression, but also their hope for the future and a positive view of themselves.
The average Canadian and American has too often “looked away” from this issue, because it was inconvenient. King’s account, albeit sad, is buffered by humour and honesty, making it a readable chronicle on a topic that is important for all North Americans. King is a storyteller at heart and he says himself that non-fiction is hard for him to write. He has written a number of novels as well, the latest is The Back of the Turtle which won the Governor General’s award for fiction in 2014.
Recently on a training tour through the Windsor Public Library, a fellow volunteer recruit commented, with a bit of annoyed confusion, that the Bill Bryson books were in Non-Fiction. I suspect she was hoping to point out an error! She was amazed to realize that many of his books were about Travel and should be where they were. She had always found them so hugely entertaining, she had expected to find them in Fiction!
‘At Home’ is a short history of private life. If you are a history, etymology, or trivia junkie, this book is for you. Bryson found himself living in a large Victorian parsonage in England and decided to write a book about how people slowly got comfortable. He uses the rooms of a house as an outline to describe how everything from the flush toilet to household electricity came to be. Although I missed the laugh-out-loud humour of his travel books such as ‘A Walk in the Woods’, this is a light hearted approachable sort of history which Bryson is known for. And many of the tangents he goes off on leave you wondering “where did he ever learn about this stuff?” There is a vast impressive bibliography at the end of the book, so clearly he did his research.
The bathroom is an opportunity to talk about hygiene, the garden about lawn mowers, the kitchen about nutrition, the nursery about children, the bedroom about sex, etc. Did you know that US became more powerful than Canada because of the Erie Canal? Forks were invented with two tines and because they were so dangerous, they were improved to have only four. The most perilous part of the home is not the bathtub, the knives in the kitchen, or the fuse box, but the stairs! Some of his discoveries are surprising – the average kitchen cloth houses way more bacteria than the toilet seat!
Some of the chapters left me wondering why there would be say, a discussion of the Eiffel Tower in The Passage chapter, or a discussion of mice and mousetraps in The Study. But I can forgive Bryson for these tangents. His book is entertaining and educational. It’s also totally unnecessary to read this book from cover to cover. By all means, keep it in The Bathroom or The Bedroom and read random chapters out of order.