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The real reason for fish knives

Care for some cod with lemon? I can give you a fish knife if you’d like. I just finished reading Consider the fork: A history of how we cook and eat, by British historian Bee Wilson, and now know why we have fish knives. I also know why Brits cook things till way past dead and people from China stir fry rather than roast.

December 23, 2016  By Dorothy Cotton

It turns out that Fanny Farmer (of cookbook fame) was really not much of a cook and it’s her fault we use volume instead of weight to cook in North America – even though it is actually not a great idea. It also turns out microwave ovens do not cook from the inside out, nor do they leak significant amounts of radiation.

What does this have to do with policing? On the surface, there is no direct link, but several take-away messages from this book apply to many aspects of our lives, including the parts tied up in policing. Here’s three examples.

1. Sometimes we do things because we always have, even though it no longer makes sense.
Let’s talk fish knives. Back in the 1700s, carbon steel was the latest cool thing and its development led to people actually having knives at home. Until then, everyone carried their own knife. If you went to dinner somewhere, you brought along your own knife.

Using someone else’s was like using someone else’s toothbrush. Gross. Along came carbon steel and suddenly everyone had a kitchen full of knives. One hitch: acidic foods became disgusting and turned black when you cut them with a carbon steel knife. Fish was often served with lemon, which is acidic, so carbon steel knife + lemon = disgusting fish. To avoid this, the rich people used special silver knives (which do not react with acid) when serving fish. Sometimes it was hard to tell the fish knives from the others so people started putting scalloped edges on the fish knives. Voila… fish knives as we know them today.


Nowadays we have stainless steel cutlery, not carbon steel, and it does not react with acid. Ergo, no one needs fish knives and there is no reason for them. It’s not like it’s tough to cut fish, but many people still have them and restaurants in particular still use them Why? Because they always did and we have learned to associate fish knives with status; they are “proper.” Not a particularly good reason.

2. Sometimes we do things that were always based on false information and misconceptions and NEVER made any sense.
Consider the microwave oven. I bought my first one in 1976 and was warned that it must be tested every year for radiation leakage. The common belief was that there was a significant risk of dire consequences from radiation. Mind you, a microwave oven (even an old leaky one) exposes you to less radiation than you’d get from standing two feet away from a wood fire.

Another common belief about microwave ovens is that they cook from the inside out. Not true. Yet microwaves, while very popular in general, have never really caught on as a primary way of cooking. We defrost and reheat, and cook the occasional thing, but most people don’t really “cook” in them. Why not?

Basically, they aren’t very cozy and don’t really line up with our idea of what cooking should be. There are no appealing smells or sounds (think: bacon sizzling in a frying pan). The family or guests can’t gather round the fire (think: campfire). Only one person can use it at a time (think: Thanksgiving).

Basically, one of the REAL reasons we don’t cook in microwaves is because it does not “feel” right. There seems to be something paranormal about the whole zapping thing. The Wilson book quotes historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto as saying the microwave has “the power to change society” in a malign way by returning us to “a pre-social phase of evolution.”

So there is no radiation risk, no inside out magical way of cooking, no paranormal activity, but these bits of misinformation very much shape our attitudes and use of microwave ovens.

3. Sometimes we just get worn down and do something we know makes no sense but SOUNDS like a good idea (usually to others).
I am not sure a cooking example is needed here. Think: the news media. Think: politics. How many things do you do every day in your organization because it pleases the media, politicians or the masses – yet you know it really makes no sense or has little impact?

If you want a cooking example, consider the egg beater. Before it was invented, everyone used a whisk (that bulbous bent wire device). Somewhere along the line, someone decided that a whisk was a whole lot of work and very tiring, so between 1856 and 1920, 692 different patents for egg beaters were granted. Every home had to have one! Labour saving!!! Able to make the fluffiest eggs ever – in seconds!
Minor details:

  1. Egg beaters are actually harder to use than whisks and so do not save labour;
  2. They aren’t faster;
  3. Who really cares how fluffy the eggs are?

But advertising, even a century ago, was powerful, so every home ended up with an egg beater.

Back to policing. The history of cooking tells us that we still do things for reasons that stopped making sense a long time ago (I believe most police headgear falls in this category). It also tells us that we do many things for reasons that have since been demonstrated to have little validity (How about preventing PTSD through critical incident debriefing?)

We do many things that there has never been evidence for: show me the data demonstrating that the appropriate frequency for requalification on the shooting range is once a year.
Food for thought…

Dr. Dorothy Cotton is Blue Line’s psychology columnist, she can be reached at

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