Select: 2,000-year-old bread and a brief history of the kitchen
The history of some of our most ubiquitous kitchen gadgets
Looking around your kitchen today, you probably don’t often stop to think about the history of its most ubiquitous appliances. You may even believe that you are the picture of modernity thanks to drawers spilling over with new-fangled gadgets, or the juicer that spews out your daily kale cocktail. But even in the most modern of kitchens, you’ll find tools that have been helping humans eat for centuries.
Surely, your shiny electric oven is a modern-day invention? Well, of course the convenience of controlled temperatures and multi-functionality is relatively new, but the concept of a hot space to cook your food is ancient. Evidence of pit ovens, holes dug into the ground and filled with fire, has been found in central Europe dating back to 29,000BC. The Greeks are widely attributed with inventing an oven suitable for baking, but even before the Greeks, the Ancient Egyptians were baking bread. In the Middle Ages, earthernware or ceramic ovens were replaced with large cauldrons hung over open fires, powered over time by wood, coal, iron and gas.
The iconic Aga was invented in 1922 by Gustaf Dalén, a Swedish physicist who lost his sight in an accident involving one of his earlier inventions. As he recuperated at home with his wife, he discovered first hand how knackered she was from cooking. So, he set out to invent a new stove that would be multi-functional and easier to use.
Electric ovens were invented in the late 19th-century for commercial use, but it took some time for ovens to become an available appliance for everyday homes, due to the cost and inaccessibility of electricity.
Though it’s hard to pinpoint when the paring knife first appeared in our kitchens, it’s safe to say that peeling potatoes was a bit of a chore until the advent of the modern peeler in the past 200 years. I found reference to an apple parer patented in Philadelphia by a Moses Coates in 1803, in an online excerpt of The Larder Invaded: Reflections on Three Centuries of Philadelphia Food and Drink by Mary Anne Hines, Gordon M Marshal and William Woys Weaver (1986).
“The apple was skewered on a rotating fork,” reads the excerpt, “and held against a stationary knife by two springs, and guided by the operation’s free hand.”
Sounds considerably more cumbersome than the Econome Peeler, invented in 1928 by Victor Pouzet. This is the peeler I have at home, consisting of a thin blade with two slits. Another particularly famous example is the Zena Rex peeler, invented in 1947 by Alfred Neweczerzal in Switzerland. It even featured on a Swiss postage stamp in 2004. It was this Zena Rex peeler that famous New York City street vendor Joe Ades sold on rthe street. Originally from Manchester and famed for his banter, Ades sold these Swiss-made potato peeler for $5 from 1993 until his death in 2009.
Bringing us way back into the past is the pestle and mortar. Mortars and grinding tools have been found at archeological sites of the Fertile Crescent, the area in the Middle East known as the Cradle of Civilisation, and thought to be the birthplace of agriculture around 9,000 years ago.
Earthenware cooking pots and six-hole cake tins made up part of a recent exhibition at the British Museum exhibition entitled “Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum”, feauring artefacts buried in the two Roma cities by a volcanic eruption in AD79. More remarkable in that exhibition was a carbonised loaf of bread, captured in lava complete with the stamp of its baker that reads “Celer, slave of Quintus Granius Verus”.
At the centre of most modern kitchens is the refridgerator, the roots of which might be older than you think. Scottish professor William Cullen designed the first refridgerating machine in 1755, though it wasn’t until 1913 that refridgerators suitable for regular households were invented by American Fred W Wolf.
Juicing has got to be a new trend, though, right? Nope. The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of nearly 1,000 texts discovered between 1946 and 1956 in the West Bank, thought to date from 300BC to AD100. One of these texts mentions a “pounded mash of pomegranate and fig” resulting in “profound strength and subtle form”. Possibly the world’s first documented example of juicing advocacy?
Another important year for juicing was 1954, heralding the invention of The Champion Juicer, the world’s first masticating juicer. The Plasatek Company, established in 1950 by three Woock brothers in California, were behind the development and manufacturing of the first juicer that could juice even leafy green vegetables.
A lot of our history as humans can be told through our kitchens. After all, we have always had to eat, and therefore have always had to have something to eat with or on. If you’re looking to uncover more stories that lie hidden in your pantry, British food writer Bee Wilson’s 2012 book Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat is a good place to start. Find out more at considerthefork.com. Aoife McElwain