Zola: You researched everything from egg timers to sporks. What was the single most surprising thing you discovered?
Bee Wilson: That our teeth may be a product of the way we use cutlery. We often assume that knives and forks are just a question of etiquette or manners. But a remarkable anthropologist named C. Loring Brace found that the structure of our jaws changed around 250 years ago, from an edge-to-edge bite (such as apes have) to an overbite—where the top layer of our teeth fits over the bottom layer, like the lid on a box. There was no radical alteration in the ingredients of our diet at this time. What changed was not what we ate but how: the change in our teeth coincides with the adoption of the knife and fork at table, which meant that for the first time, we were cutting food into small morsels before eating it rather than chewing on large hunks. That same change is seen 900 years earlier in teeth in China, the reason being chopsticks.
Zola: For someone who’s stocking their very first kitchen, what are three essential pieces of cookware they’ll need? Not including the fire and the fridge.
BW: A heavy cast-iron skillet. You can do almost anything in this, from cooking steaks to making pancakes or corn bread. A sharp, all-purpose knife that feels comfortable in your hand. And stainless steel kitchen tongs, which seem to bestow an instant feeling of poise when cooking.
Zola: What’s the strangest utensil or kitchen appliance you’ve come across?
BW: A dog-powered wheel for turning a spit-roast. A special variety of dog—the turnspit—was bred [in 16th-century England], with short legs, so that they could keep going in the wheel for hours. There are heartrending accounts of how many of the dogs were too intelligent for the job and wisely ran away when they noticed meat being prepared for dinner.
Zola: Is there an out-of-fashion appliance that’s due for a comeback?
BW: The pressure cooker is something that has bad connotations for many people—of brown, overcooked food and the constant fear that [the pressure cooker] would explode. But in a fuel-scarce future, it feels like a tool that might be rediscovered. They are already hugely popular among cooks in Brazil, who often use gas canisters and have to be far more fuel-savvy than cooks in America or Britain. The current models of pressure cookers are far better made than they were in the 1960s. And to be able to cook things like risotto in a fraction of the time, with no stirring, is win-win.
Zola: Please recommend some cookbooks: for beginners, moderate cooks, and the truly dedicated kitchen master.
BW: For beginners: How to Eat by Nigella Lawson, because she never makes you feel bad if you don’t know the first thing about cooking. My husband has slowly built up a small repertoire of trusty dishes that he makes from this book. For a moderate cook: The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers. She explains processes more clearly and with better detail than any other writer I can think of, and her recipes are always delicious. For an advanced cook: Modernist Cuisine at Home by Nathan Myhrvold. Because even if you don’t feel like following a full recipe, you learn something new about cooking processes on every page.
This article was updated on September 29, 2014
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.