Early on in this fascinating history of the kitchen, Bee Wilson ponders the possibility that there was, thousands of years ago, a single man who discovered for the first time that food could be transformed by fire. If such a man had existed he would not only have started off the entire history of cooking, but he would also have been responsible for altering our very physiology. Wilson, quoting anthropologist Richard Wrangham, explains how the discovery of fire marks the decisive moment where "upright apes became more fully human", providing, through a more balanced and nourishing diet, "a dull human body with a brilliant human mind".
Wilson's book seems light-hearted at first glance but through its deep inquiry into our changing relationship with food and cooking, throws light on the evolution and development of humanity itself. Effortlessly and elegantly, Wilson shows us, through discussion of spoons, forks, fridges and hobs, how the entire history of our species can be navigated in a journey around the kitchen.
Wilson takes us down almost all possible routes in her exploration of kitchen-related invention, from the earliest knives and pots to futuristic "smart fridges" with Wi-Fi and Twitter feeds. In an especially enlightening passage, she explains the emergence of the overbite in our anatomy as correlating with the development of blunt, non-corrosive table cutlery in the 18th century (a development that reduced the amount of cutting and chewing done at meal-times, eliminating the need for teeth that could "cut" for us).
Despite the fascinating content, however, Wilson's witty, colloquial style can sometimes feel forced (as, say, in the comparison between a medieval knife and Harry Potter's wand) and occasionally gets in the way of the otherwise concise narrative. But this remains both a poignant history and a reflective study of how we live today; modern kitchens, despite their "hard, chilly lines", are "filled with ghosts" of the inventors and engineers that have influenced the way we cook through history. No matter how futuristic our appliances, the act of cooking will for ever be "an old, old thing: using the transformative power of fire to make things taste better".