by Kate Heyhoe
Thank goodness for experts. Without experts, we'd have far too much information to digest. If we tried to learn everything there is to know about a particular topic, our brains might literally explode—unless, of course, you're Stephen Hawking, whose mental capacity seems as infinite as the laws of physics themselves.
Cooking may not be as serious a topic as physics, but some would debate its lack of academic importance. Cooking is practical science functioning at its best. In fact, many cooking principles were discovered or first codified by scientists (remember Louis Pasteur?), and cooking has often inspired scientists to explore deeper. The more we know about food and its behavior under various conditions, the better we can sustain ourselves, in sickness and in health, for the joy of eating or out of fundamental necessity.
Shaking up standard preconceptions plays an important role in science. Where would we be if Copernicus, and then Galileo, hadn't proposed that our planet revolves around the sun? Not quite as earth shattering but nonetheless intriguing are the current spate of molecular gastronomes, whose workplaces seem more like chemistry labs than kitchens, humming with centrifuges, dehydrators, and laser printers burning vegetable ink into edible paper. The mission: to transmogrify food away from the familiar and into the realm of the completely unexpected and even startling. I may not rush home to replicate the dishes of science-chefs like Ferran Adriá and Grant Achatz, but I find their work fascinating for two reasons.
One, like the Dadaists, these avant garde chefs are shaking up our assumptions: Shrimp cocktail served not in a dish, but misted in your mouth via an atomizer, capturing all the vivid flavors in a surprising burst. Seasoning a dish with cinnamon—not on the plate, but from a smoking incense stick. A frothy milkshake that turns out to be fine foie gras. Breaking rules to emphasize just how much we "taste" with all our senses.
Secondly, the kitchen scientists are adding to the method. You can't deconstruct to the extreme unless you first know the fundamentals, right down to the atomic level. Armed with enzymes and emulsifiers, chefs are giving traditional foods radical makeovers (like deep-frying solid cubes of mayonnaise, for instance.) But these experiments are no less valid than the discovery that meat, when tossed on the flame, becomes an entirely different edible than in its raw condition. Egg whites perfectly exemplify what happens to a common food when its molecules undergo scientific scrutiny. Depending on degrees of temperature, air, and time, egg whites can be the rubbery solids of a fried egg; crisp, crumbly meringue cookies; or the soft, browned peaks of Baked Alaska or a lemon meringue pie. And beaten egg whites brushed on breads and pastries leave a lovely, lustrous sheen, without tasting "eggy."
Recently, a number of new books introduce readers to some academic aspects of culinary expertise, but these works are far from boring. You can learn which characters left lasting impact on the world of cooking in Alice Arndt's Culinary Biographies, how to play with flavor in Molecular Gastronomy, and practically speaking, how the pros learn to cook with authenticity in American Regional Cuisine. Here's a snapshot of each:
Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor
Hervé This is a physical chemist in Paris, whose works are delectably readable and only mildly challenging, even to the home cook. This book isn't for everyone, but you may find it indispensable if the inner chef in you has a taste for knowing why fermentation causes breads to rise (and hence ways to improve the process); or understands that the art of mixing oil with water, even without eggs, can produce a sublime mayonnaise; or wishes to introduce chocolate into all kinds of pastry, including puff pastry. The book's final section, A Taste for Tomorrow, leaps with joy into the molecular gastronomy toyed with by today's au courant chefs: cooking in a vacuum, aioli made from beef or vegetables, and foamed foie gras, for instance. You won't find exact recipes for these experiments, but you will discover the essential process behind the magic of culinary alchemy.
Clearly from the book's subtitle, scientists are but one cadre of culinary influencers profiled. Among them are Louis Pasteur, the father of pasteurization and food hygiene, whose experiments revealed the role of heat on dangerous microbial bacteria in wine, milk, and beer; and Harvey Washington Wiley, the "father" of the Food and Drugs Act of 1906, and the conductor of the "Poison Squad" experiments, in which food preservatives were tested on twelve USDA employees.
Editor Alice Arndt captures hundreds of other faces whose lives have had an impact on eating, including both famous and less familiar names. Among my favorites are 16th Century artist Arcimboldo, whose portrait of Emperor Rudolf II as Vertumnus, god of horticulture, features produce in a pre-Mr. Potato Head fashion: a pear as nose, peaches as cheeks, cherry lips (literally), corn as ears, and so on. "The portrait," writes the essay's author Nancy C. Stutzman, "is an allegory of the emperor as ruler of the seasons, and celebrates the harmony of the world under his rule."
The profiles, written by experts in their fields, are short enough to entertain, long enough to detail the subject honorably. ven if they never cook themselves, those with a curiosity about eating, history, and society will want a full helping of this book. I especially admire Arndt for self-publishing this well researched and designed tome. Large publishers can be absolutely pig-headed when it comes to valuable books that tackle narrow subjects; it takes true love and guts to publish, promote, and distribute one's own book. Thanks to Arndt, we finally have a book that chronicles the food world's most important moments and personalities. (culinarybiographies.com)
The title sounds romantic and breezy, like a Williams Sonoma collection, but this book is grounded in the classroom. It's produced by The Art Institutes, a system of 21 educational institutions focusing on the culinary arts. The book clearly states it's not for novices: knowledge of basic cooking principles are essential (like making stocks and sauces). But if you're comfortable with a whisk and terms like deglaze and sear, you should have few problems working with these recipes, which are written cleanly and without frivolous embellishment. It's like a crash-course in American cooking, with each regional cuisine covered from appetizers to desserts, and profiled with history, influences, and ingredients. Color and black and white photos illustrate the plated dishes, which stretch from Lone Star Chicken-Fried Steak with Cream Gravy to Marinated Grilled Quail on Spinach Salad, and from Kalua Pig Spring Rolls to Key West Conch Chowder. If conquering the United States one region at a time is on your menu plan, consider using this collection as your base.
Unlike the petri dishes and test tube foods of the mad scientists, the recipes below reflect traditional methods, but ones well worth knowing, especially before deconstructing your next shrimp cocktail. Be sure to read their headnotes, to learn more about the history behind each dish.
Copyright © 2006, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created August 2006
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