Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Science-based cooking

The kitchen as laboratory

July 22, 2013

One of my favorite stories about Charles Darwin, which I discovered in Janet Browne’s excellent biography, Voyaging, concerns the collision of science and dinner.

Sorely desiring a rhea specimen in Patagonia one evening, Darwin looked down at his almost-empty plate and realized he had just finished eating one for dinner.

Of the discovery, he wrote, “The bird was cooked and eaten before my memory [of rhea sightings in the area] returned. Fortunately, the head, neck, legs, wings, many of the larger feathers and a large part of the skin, had been preserved.”

In other words, what the cooks knew the diners were too finicky to eat eventually found a home in Britain’s Royal Zoological Society Museum.

This is a far cry from the oft-told story of Isaac Newton, who was convinced that he had eaten his meal when a fellow diner swapped his untouched piece of chicken for a pile of bones. Talk about a person out of touch with his body.

Talk about something that would never happen to me.

I chuckle every time I imagine Darwin barging into a small country kitchen and asking the cooks to show him the garbage pile. Did he reassemble the skeleton on the tile floor of the kitchen? Or did he cart the mess upstairs and wipe the sauce from each piece before he set about re-assembling his avian puzzle?

Everyone’s kitchen is a lab.

I’m thinking about this story because I’ve been reading The Kitchen as Laboratory: Reflections on the Science of Food and Cooking, edited by César Vega, Job Ubbink, and Erik Van der Linden, with an introduction by Jeffrey Steingarten. In 33 brief essays, dense creamy layers of food science — from the auditory aspects of eating to the molecular composition of egg yolk prepared many ways — are arranged to tantalize and provoke.

In this book, I discovered that Turkish people have been enjoying stretchy ice cream while I have been making do with the lumpy, inert sort. I was also treated to a 360-degree view of the physical and cultural phenomenon that is bacon, which culminates in Timothy Knight’s admonition to “give yourself over completely to the meat that makes your life complete.”

Steingarten and the anthology editors offer brisk and thoughtful histories of the food-science amalgam, from Christian Millau to Nicholas and Giana Kurti to Harold McGee.

They bemoan the imperfect jargon that has attended the rise of their field; between “nouvelle cuisine” and “molecular gastronomy,” there seems to be no escape from highfalutin, inaccessible monikers. The term the editors would like us to embrace is “science-based cooking,“ which happens to be a tidy anagram of Darwin’s mid-19th-century venture of “cooking-based science.”

What distinguishes Kitchen as Laboratory from the Kurtis’ work, in Steingarten’s view, is the recruitment of dedicated food scientists to the task of documenting research in their field, as their ranks have grown since the Kurtis’ groundbreaking work emerged.

Once upon a time, food science was a side road down which legitimate scientists traveled once their professional bona fides were secure. Now, understanding the behavior of sugar at high heat is more than the candy-maker’s genius. It’s a window onto the portion of the material world that we happen to digest.

I have friends who direct and support citizen science programs focused on environmental issues. They raise the consciousness of everyday people by making visible the animals that live in the rivers that flow past their cities and also those which migrate through their parks and backyards each spring. After reading Vega and his co-editors’ anthology, I foresee another branch of civic scientific inquiry on the horizon.

The kitchen is a laboratory that many people ignore as surely as they once looked past their rivers and underpasses. Field-based citizen science has already blazed the trail by making curiosity and excellent observation skills — not a lab coat or an expensive laboratory — hallmarks of good research.

What if we leveraged the kitchen as a place to collect data about food-borne illnesses, nutrition, energy consumption, and eating psychology? What kind of fantastic and immense data set could we produce in even a year’s time?

Darwin became an important figure in the history of science in part because his resources were plentiful; he had time for observation and money for equipment most of us can only dream of. I suspect, though, that his sense of plenitude also allowed him to trust in his instincts and to risk candor with posterity about how each humble piece of his research paradigm clicked into place.

That aspect of good science is within our reach. I understand that much of molecular gastronomy has been about weird jellies that you can make only with thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment. And I know that high-tech equipment may forever dominate scientific endeavor. But that can’t stop those of us on the lo-fi end from staring at our plates and wondering what Darwin would have done in our places.

There are 3 comments on this item
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1. by Krista Keller on Jul 22, 2013 at 3:44 PM PDT

I love Charles Darwin! Evolution is scary isn’t it and survival or the fittest wow.

2. by Scott Haulman on Aug 4, 2013 at 3:27 PM PDT

It only makes sence to educate ourselves about the effect that ingredients we ingest have on our bodies.

3. by joanmenefee on Aug 5, 2013 at 7:58 AM PDT

I have to admit, Krista, evolution doesn’t scare me; it makes me feel less alone on the planet; humans are going through the same processes as all other organisms--sentient and insentient, animate and inanimate-- around us. That connection is much of what makes the world beautiful to me.

Yes, Scott. It also makes sense for all of us who cook and eat to see ourselves as data collectors for the common good. Scientific knowledge is produced as an adjunct to everyday life knowledge. Merging the two ways of thinking and data collection mechanisms could be exciting, I think.

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