Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Pans, Knives, and Fuel

I'm reading Consider the Fork, by Bee Wilson, which explores the history of cooking technologies all the way back to fire. In it, there is an illuminating passage that's very Guns, Germs, and Steel-y in explaining England's reputation for bad food that I wanted to share and expand on since it really struck me as seeming to make a lot of sense. One of those "aha moment" feelings.

Basically, compared to other parts of the world, England was both densely wooded and grassy, providing a lot of fuel for roasting, which is a very energy-intensive method of cooking, and a lot of feed for raising grazing animals. Around Europe, the English were known as masterful roasters, and they developed expertise in open-hearth roasting to the extreme. Wilson also notes that besides roasting, through the middle centuries of the second millennium CE, England was particularly fond of bread and beer, which were also reliant on copious supplies of firewood. However, this blessing of resources was also a curse in that it allowed them to rest on their laurels and not develop more creative and varied cuisine (I suppose it could be related to the natural resource curse that some countries suffer from).

To expand on this point a bit, it's always seemed a little odd to me that so much of more traditional American cuisine, with its roots in England/Europe, relies on roasting and baking since heat transfer through air is one of the least efficient ways to cook (as Scott McGee discusses in On Food and Cooking). So why would so much of any culinary tradition lean on those techniques? At least on the face of it, growing from a tradition rooted in roasting (which evolved toward contemporary methods of baking and "roasting") and in which fuel supply was not a problem could be an explanation or part of one.

In contrast to England's case, Wilson highlights China, which was relatively fuel-poor. Although Chinese cuisine also has roasts, wok frying was and is the basic and dominant cooking technique, and cutting foods into small pieces increases their surface area and enables quicker cooking with less fuel.

After cooking technologies evolved away from open-hearth roasting, though, Wilson notes that "English cooks were left with an entire group of skills that couldn't easily be transferred to other cooking methods." So they were caught up a dead end and have been playing catch up.

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