Armchair Cooks Will Love It

By Anna Dantoni.

For the dad who would rather read about cooks than be one, you can’t do better than Michael Symons’s well illustrated and somewhat scholarly paperback book called “A History of Cooks and Cooking,” (University of Illinois Press.) It’s a neat piece of culinary historical reporting that turns up all sorts of random information that is bound to make, well, great dinner table conversation.

There’s the ancient debate over roasting versus baking of meats once fire has been discovered and tamed. Other chapters explain how the modern kitchen evolved, how food influences film (he names and talks about quite a few including Heartburn and Like Water for Hot Chocolate), the concept of the hearth, vegetarianism, the industrialization of food distribution and how and why food festivals came into commonality in modern social structures.
The author has a particular fondness and respect for knives and devotes a whole chapter to what he says is one of any cook’s two essential tools (the other being fire.) He reminds us that at the medieval table the knife was the most and sometimes the only common utensil and that guests would bring their own, wiping them down on their clothes after the meal.

Later, starting in Italy gracious hosts began providing knives to their dinner guests. A guest would use the knife to stab morsels from a common plate. But some hosts feared a table composed of knife-wielding nobles and possible assassination plots therein. So in 1669, for example, Louis XIV of France issued a royal edict making it illegal for anyone to carry pointed knives.

Symons goes into the details of carving, chopping, slicing, cleaving and, of course, here is where the professional butcher makes his grand entrance. The first ones were priests whose job it was to slay, divide and sacrifice an animal as part of religious ritual. Later, the butcher became central to the village commerce of food and still later the “carver” achieved high status at the dinner table. Think Thanksgiving and who does the cutting. Which usually brings us back to dad. Maybe he’s not always a cook but generally an enthusiastic carver. Make sure he has a good knife.

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