I’m not the one one charmed by knives. “There is a peculiar joy in holding a knife that feels just right for your hand and marvelling as it dices an onion, almost without effort on your part,” author-scholar Bee Wilson writes in Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat.
The 2012 guide was advisable to me by my meals history-loving physicist pal. It seems on the know-how of meals, delving deep into points corresponding to hearth, forks, ice, and pots and pans. And there may be, in fact, an illuminating chapter on knives.
“The knife is the oldest tool in the cook’s armory, older than the management of fire by somewhere between 1 million and 2 million years, depending on which anthropologist you believe,” she writes.
Every meal’s basis
The earliest stone-cutting instruments date again 2.6 million years to Ethiopia, she factors out. Excavations have unearthed sharp-ended rocks and bones with cut-marks on them. “Cutting with some implement or the other is the most basic way of processing food. Knives do some of the work that feeble human teeth cannot.”
So it’s no shock that the device occupies the excessive desk within the kitchen. “In my experience, when you ask chefs what their favourite kitchen gadget is, nine times out of ten they will say a knife. They say it slightly impatiently, because it is just so obvious: the foundation of every great meal is accurate cutting.”
There was a time when knives (in lots of elements of the world) have been sharp on either side of the blade. This modified when, someday in 1637, Cardinal Richelieu, chief advisor to King Louis XIII of France, noticed a dinner visitor utilizing the sharp tip of a double-edged knife to choose his tooth.
“This act so appalled the cardinal — whether because of the danger or the vulgarity is not entirely clear — that he ordered all his own knives to be made blunt, starting a new fashion.”
Different sorts of knives play completely different roles within the meals we eat. The French chef Auguste Escoffier (1846–1935), who is alleged to have laid the inspiration of recent French restaurant cooking, had separate sections within the kitchen for sauces, meats and pastries. “Each of these units had its own persnickety knives,” Wilson writes.
French meals, certainly, has “meticulous knife work” behind it. If you like uncooked oysters, you’ll know that somebody has “skilfully opened each mollusk with an oyster shucker, sliding the knife upward to cut the adductor muscle that holds the shell closed.” Likewise, a savoury French steak has been suitably moulded by a knife. And then there are greens.
“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.”
She turns the lens on the completely different sorts of knives utilized in completely different elements of the world. “Perhaps no knife is kind of as multifunctional, nor fairly as important to a meals tradition, because the Chinese tou,” she writes, referring to the cleaver-like device used to cut components into small items. The Japanese santoku is “one of the most desirable, all-purpose knives for the home kitchen.” The phrase means ‘three uses’ — for it’s equally good at reducing meat, chopping greens and slicing fish.
“Become the boss of a sharp knife, and you are the boss of the whole kitchen,” Wilson proclaims.
Did somebody say a knife is a knife is a knife? Chop that thought.