Even though our modern kitchens are full of appliances that slice, fry, broil, stir, beat and grind, we still often complain there isn’t enough time to cobble together a meal. But imagine being transported back to a time when there wasn’t such a thing as an electric mixer or even a stove and you had to get supper on the table.
In the beginning, about 1.9 million years ago, cavemen roasted the day’s catch on sticks over open fires. Then came the age of primitive tools, about 700,000 years ago, during the Paleolithic era, when axes, spears and harpoons were used to kill dinner, and fingers served as forks, and shells, bones and wood chips served as spoons.
The world’s first food processor, the mortar and pestle, goes back to around 35,000 B.C., and the earliest known pottery vessels go back to 18,000 B.C. China. It wasn’t until around 4000 B.C. that Egyptians started making their famous clay pots and ladles.
Forks first became popular in ancient Greece, but probably only as cooking and serving utensils. The use of personal forks didn’t take hold until the time of the Roman Empire, when wealthy Romans were dining from gold and silver cups and plates and drinking from glass, and using silver and bronze forks. By the 10th century, the table fork was common in the Middle East, but, shockingly, it did not become a standard throughout Europe until the 18th century.
Knives and hatchets were first made from stone, and later from copper and bronze. Knives, in particular, were extremely popular during the Roman Period, when the era’s metallurgy industry prolifically made them with iron. Throughout the Middle Ages and even until after the American Civil War, blacksmiths were crucial to the cook, who often labored over a blistering hot hearth that required iron hooks, trivets and utensils, along with cranes with swinging arms that held pots heavy as Volkswagens.
Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, many time-saving kitchen devices were created using tin and cast iron. In Colonial America, tinplate was used for cups, baking pans, pastry cutters and cheese presses. Aside from pots, one of the most popular cast-iron tools was the sausage-making machine and, later, the rotary grater (grinder), which could be bolted to a table, and which is still often used today.
Then came the Victorian Era, when cookbooks became more widely available and cast-iron stoves and ovens became prevalent in private kitchens. This was also the golden age of kitchen gadgetry, when vast improvements were made in corkscrews and can openers, and middle- and upper-class kitchens became jam-packed with fancy molds, meat tenderizing devices, lemon squeezers, butter churns and molds, bean slicers, oyster plates and salad graters. Since cholesterol wasn’t a worry back then, eggs were en vogue and, naturally, they required special egg cookers, egg cups, egg openers and egg spoons.
True, throughout the late 19th century, the wealthy owned handsomely decorated chocolate pots and fish platters, and silversmiths made special spoons, forks and serving pieces for such foods as bacon, asparagus, marrow, sardines, potato chips and toast. But this was also a time when sugar still needed to be pulverized, spices required grinding, and coffee had to be ground and roasted. And for all these tasks there were, of course, special tools, but none of them were electric.
Which brings us to the present, and our plastic, stainless steel and aluminum gizmos — we have tons of them, from electric coffee grinders, to popcorn makers, to salad spinners, toaster ovens and Fry Daddys, much of the stuff relegated to the back of a cupboard. So even though life is hectic and we find excuses to stay out of the kitchen, think back to ancient cooks who would have given a lot for a food processor or a rotary egg beater, or something simple as a fork. Maybe it’s time to give those neglected gadgets a second thought.
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is editor of “The Southern Table” cookbook series at LSU Press and author of “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources: Guisepi, Robert A. “An Overview of the Paleolithic,” www.history-world.org; Gargus, Brenda, “The History of Kitchen Gadgets,” www. Suite.io/Brenda-gargus; Lee, Hilde. “History of kitchen gadgets,” The Daily Progress. www.dailyprogerss.com; Dunne, Patrick. The Epicurean Collector, Bulfinch Press (2002).
Answers: 1(b), 2(c), 3(a), 4(d)