Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson

Book: Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson Read Free Book Online
Authors: Bee Wilson
be given the job of “turning” potatoes into perfect little spheres. For this task, he would use a tournet knife, a small parer with a blade like a bird’s beak. This curved blade would be awkward for cutting on a board—the angle is all wrong. Yet that arc is just right for swiping the skin off a handheld round object, following its contours to leave an aesthetically pleasing little globe. A garnish of turned vegetables—so pretty, so whimsical, so unmistakably French—is the direct result of a certain knife, wielded in a certain way, guided by a certain philosophy about what food should be.
    Our food is shaped by knives. And our knives are fashioned by that mysterious combination of local resources, technological innovation, and cultural preferences that makes up a cuisine. The French way with knives is not the only way. In the case of China, an entire approach to eating and cooking was founded on a single knife, the tou , often referred to as the Chinese cleaver, perhaps the most fearsomely useful knife ever devised.
     
    C utting devices divide up into those that have one function and one function only—the Gorgonzola cutter, the arrow-shaped crab knife, the pineapple-slicing device that spirals down into the yellow fruit, removing the woody core and leaving only perfect juicy rings—and those that can be pressed into service for countless jobs: the multitaskers. And not surprisingly, different cooking cultures have produced different multitasker knives.
    The Inuit ulu, for example, is a fan-shaped blade (similar to an Italian mezzaluna) traditionally used by Eskimo women for anything from trimming a child’s hair to shaving blocks of ice, as well as
chopping fish. The Japanese santoku is another multitasker, currently regarded as one of the most desirable all-purpose knives for the home kitchen. It is far lighter than a European chef’s knife, with a rounded tip, and often has oval dimples, called divots, along the blade. Santoku means “three uses,” so named because a santoku is equally good at cutting meat, chopping vegetables, and slicing fish.

    Perhaps no knife is quite as multifunctional, nor quite as essential to an entire food culture, as the Chinese tou. This wondrous blade is often referred to as a “cleaver” because it has the same square-bladed hatchet shape as the cleaver that butchers use to hack through meat bones. The tou’ s use, however, is that of an all-purpose kitchen knife (for once, “all-purpose” is no exaggeration). For E. N. Anderson, the anthropologist of China, the tou exemplifies the principle of “minimax”: maximum usage from minimum cost and effort. The idea is a frugal one: the best Chinese kitchen would extract the maximum cooking potential from the minimum number of utensils. The tou fits the bill. This big-bladed knife, writes Anderson, is useful for
    splitting firewood, gutting and scaling fish, slicing vegetables, mincing meat, crushing garlic (with the dull side of the blade), cutting one’s nails, sharpening pencils, whittling new chopsticks, killing pigs, shaving (it is kept sharp enough, or supposedly is), and settling scores old and new with one’s enemies
    What makes the tou still more versatile is the fact that—unlike the Inuit ulu-it gave rise to what is widely considered one of the world’s two greatest cuisines (the other being French). From ancient times, the great characteristic of Chinese cookery was the intermingling of flavors through fine chopping. The tou made this
possible. During the Zhou dynasty (1045—256 BC), when iron was first introduced to China, the art of fine gastronomy was referred to as “k’o’peng,” namely, to “cut and cook.” It was said of the philosopher Confucius (who lived from 551—479 BC) that he would eat no meat that had not been properly cut. By around 200 BC, cookbooks were using many different words for cutting and mincing, suggesting a high level of knife skills ( dao gong ).
    A typical tou has a blade

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