Part Art Part Science

One of the things I love about cooking is that it’s part art and part science with just enough math thrown in. But you don’t even have to know that to be a good cook. You may visualize taste and instinctively know what to throw together. You may have apprenticed with your grandmother, mother or dad and have a visual reference for the thickness of pancake batter. There are so many paths that lead to great cooking!

If you don’t have much experience and cooking doesn’t come naturally to you, the book SaltFatAcidHeat by Samin Nosrat can bring you knowledge and confidence. Even if you’re an experienced cook and are good in the kitchen, you may improve your game using this tool. Besides that, the book has pleasing illustrations and quirky fold-out pages. It also includes pages on which to write notes. I always appreciate those.

While it’s not a traditional cookbook, this book does contain recipes – delicious ones. The Vietnamese Cucumber Salad (page 226) is so good, I could eat it every day for a week!

And speaking of salads, there’s a whole section in SaltFatAcidHeat on dressings. I’m fond of throwing together dressing rather than buying bottles of it from the store. I feel the same way about barbecue sauce. There’s less waste that way, and I’m rarely without the raw ingredients to make a dressing or sauce on a whim.

You may think there’s no way you’ll ever prepare your own salad dressing, but reading this book will make you a more likely explorer in that you will come away understanding the basic elements of good cooking. It shares the kind of knowledge that can bring more confidence and freedom in the kitchen. You’ll have read how to cook onions. And not just soften them until they’re clear, but how to brown or caramelize them. You’ll know how to fix a broken mayonnaise and create a dough that’s chewy and rich or one that’s flaky or tender.

I’m going to delve more deeply into the dough section while I adapt some recipes to make them dairy-free. Swapping out another liquid for milk changes a dough more than you might expect. And the fact that my dairy-free doughs are also gluten-free adds another layer of complexity. Understanding the science of dough helps me design artful ways around the obstacles presented by combining nontraditional ingredients.

If you want to delve further into the science of cooking, there’s literally a book entitled The Science of Cooking: Every Question Answered to Perfect Your Cooking. This book is filled with facts and has a very different feel than SaltFatAcidHeat. But both are great learning tools.

There are other books that approach cooking from a scientific perspective: Culinary Reactions: The Everyday Chemistry of Cooking and The Science of Spice: Understand Flavor Connections and Revolutionize Your Cooking are two of those. If one of these doesn’t suit you, just look around a bit and you’re sure to find a guide that will.

Whether you enjoy the art or science of cooking, there’s always more to learn and more delicious dishes to make. That makes cooking the perfect job for me.

If only there were someone else to do the dishes!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Memory Monday

It’s time for a throwback but it isn’t Thursday so welcome to Memory Monday. There’s been a lot of talk this year about 1918 and the subsequent roaring 20s. Many have drawn parallels between what happened then and what’s happening now. Today’s throwback shows that even diet advice in the 1920s had elements that sound familiar in 2020. Why? Because science.

One jewel of 1920s diet advice was authored by Professor Arnold Ehret and entitled, Mucusless Diet Healing System. The tag line tells us this volume contains: “A Scientific Method of Eating Your Way to Health.” Scientific sounds promising and I agree with something Fred S. Hirsch, D.N.S. said in the introduction, “Bias, prejudice, and erratic conclusions have always stood in the way of progress….”

He also said, “The main trouble with the average individuals of present-day civilization is that they refuse to think. They prefer ‘mob thinking.’ Because everybody else does it, it must be right.” I’m pretty sure I’ve read similar statements recently on Twitter.

Arnold Ehret suffered from several ailments that left him feeling chronically ill. Bright’s disease which would now be described as chronic nephritis characterized by swelling and the presence of albumin in the urine, bronchial catarrh or a buildup of mucus, and consumptive tendencies that may have been caused by tuberculosis all plagued him. After many trips to sanitariums to recover, he was pronounced incurable. The grandson of a doctor and son of a veterinarian, he set out to find a way to heal himself.

Through trial and error, he discovered that he felt best when he alternated fasting and a diet based on grape sugar or dextrose. Monosaccharides like dextrose are single sugar molecules which require no further digestion in order to be transported across the intestinal barrier and into the bloodstream. I’m sensing a similarity between Ehret’s diet and the Specific Carbohydrate Diet devised by Elaine Gottschall.

The theory at play in both is that monosaccharides or “predigested” carbohydrates found in ripe fruit, honey, some vegetables, nuts, and tiny amounts of meat can reduce inflammation. While Ehret’s work is primarily based on observation, Gottschall’s is based on sound science of the 1950s backed by degrees in biology, nutritional biochemistry, and cellular biology.

We now know that inflammation is involved in the process of many diseases and we are learning the role of the microbiome in health. There is also a move away from meat toward plant based diets. While Ehret may not have had a complete understanding of the science behind any of these, he was not totally off track.

In Lesson XXV (p191), he even mentions decayed and fermented mass of matter in the colon. That sounds like a mention of the microbiome to me. This early insight still holds enough relevance that Prof. Arnold Ehret’s Mucusless Diet Healing System is available for purchase.

It’s funny. We usually think we’ve advanced so far in the past century that nothing from the past can possibly be useful. Then along comes a pandemic and photos of 1918 outdoor barbershops take on a whole new meaning.

That’s the thing we always seem to forget – science is not an absolute, it is a living body of knowledge. It is always rooted in what was known before, proven, built on, revised, and relearned in an expanded understanding that is greater than before. One of its basic principles is that any law, theory, or otherwise can be disproven if new facts or evidence are presented.

There is much in Ehret’s diet system that can be questioned, but he asks a pertinent question: “What shall man eat to be healthy or heal his disease?”(p86)

Asking the right questions can advance science and those questions can come from anyone, any time, anywhere. Translational research recognizes this. Professor Ehret lived it. Jill Viles does too.

Science is always looking back and moving forward at the same time. That makes every day in the scientific community a Memory Monday.

Out of the Mouth of Babes, Snakes, and Scientists – Smell Begins With the Tongue

Sometimes a new idea comes out of the mouth of babes, snakes, and scientists. A study published last week online in advance of the print edition in Oxford Academic Chemical Senses finds that smell may begin with the tongue rather than the brain. One of the study’s authors, Mehmet Hakan Ozdener, MD, PhD, MPH, became intrigued with the idea when his adolescent son asked whether snakes stick their tongues out in order to smell.
A current model of taste and smell shows two genetically different receptor systems located in anatomically distinct locations that send signals to different targets. While the two are known to intertwine to form the perception of flavor, scientists thought that the first merger occurred in the insular cortex – a part of the cerebral cortex in the brain. The insulae are believed to play a role in functions that include perception, motor control, self-awareness, cognitive functioning and interpersonal experience.

The abstract of this new study states: “Here we report that olfactory receptors are functionally expressed in taste papillae…The results provide the first direct evidence of the presence of functional olfactory receptors in mammalian taste cells. Our results also demonstrate that the initial integration of gustatory and olfactory information may occur as early as the taste receptor cells.” (1) Other experiments confirm that smell and taste receptors may be found within the same cell.

There are 400 different types of functional human olfactory receptors and scientists do not know what molecules activate the vast majority of them. While fascinating, this study alone does not answer that question or have a practical application other than to advance knowledge that will lead to other studies.

That’s the beauty of science. It’s a living body of changing knowledge. One layer builds on another. The more we understand about how things work, the more options we have for enhancing our lives. It’s good to remind ourselves of that occasionally.

Believing science has become a battle cry among those who want to stand firm on what we currently know. There’s a danger in that because tomorrow we will know more and that may mean that what we know today is no longer supported by the evidence. It also makes science sound like a restrictive rule book. Who wants to learn a bunch of rules? Certainly not bright minds that can imagine big ideas.

Instead of believing science, I’d rather we love it! And while we’re loving it, let’s be curious. Curiosity leads to advancement. Questioning is good. Skepticism can play a valuable role. Allowing our understanding to shift and change does not threaten our way of life. It has the potential to vastly improve it.

But don’t take that from me, take it from the mouth of a scientist: “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” – Albert Einstein.


The Benefits of Cooking – Part 3: The Lessons

When I was in junior high school, all girls were required to take a class called Home Economics and all boys were required to take Wood Shop. Well, to be truthful, I never took Home Ec because I opted to take an extra science course instead.

What did I need Home Ec for? I was told that what they did in that class was learn to cook and sew. I already knew how to do those things. My grandmother taught me to sew when I was 9. My mother was delegating her baking to me even before that. I was ready to learn something new. I was off to take a new science class in which I excelled. Why? I was well prepared. All those lessons I learned in the kitchen had prepared me for science, math, and process thinking.

As we watch our kids become less and less skilled in these three areas, I often wonder how closely related it is to the fact that many of us no longer cook. Perhaps we should consider getting the kids back in the kitchen so they’ll be better prepared for school.

Double a recipe and your daughter will quickly come to understand why adding and multiplying fractions are critical skills. Without understanding common denominators, how can she know that 1 1/4 cups plus 1 1/4 cups equals 2 1/2 cups?  But once she has learned these conversions while cooking, there will be no need to resist expanding on that knowledge in math class. Certainly the familiar – “Why do I need to learn this, I’ll never use it in real life?” – argument will be nullified. Want to help her even more, have her make one and a half recipes of cookies. The division required provides an opportunity to use even more advanced math skills.

Throw some salt in a pot of water that you need to hurry up and boil. Your son just learned that you can lower the boiling point of water by adding salt. Put some baking soda in lemon juice and let him watch a frothing chemical reaction that doesn’t threaten to destroy your house or poison its occupants.

There are endless chemistry and physics lessons inherent in cooking. You can point them out, or just let your children learn without knowing they’re learning as they watch solid fats melt into liquids, lemon juice curdle cream, or heat cause baking soda to release carbon dioxide and make a cupcake rise. Even if you don’t specifically discuss the science behind these reactions while you’re cooking, you are creating a repository of knowledge that will make these concepts seem familiar when it’s time to take a chemistry class. This knowledge will help remove the fear of being in the lab and lay the foundation of curiosity for a formula that explains how the acids in baking powder react to create carbon dioxide.

If you have a child who wants all the food to look pretty, you can focus on the art and design lessons in cooking. Mix red and yellow food coloring and the kids can immediately see the resulting orange color. Explore scale and proportion by layering cakes. Experiment with different piping tips, brushes, or “found” tools to create texture in frosting, cookies, or crackers. Build houses, make dough people, or create an entire edible village. For this lesson, innovation and creativity are your guides. Let the ideas flow freely. Feel the excitement that collaboration brings when one idea sparks another.

No matter what lesson you’re attempting to learn in the kitchen, you will learn about process, procedure, and order of operations. If you begin without any plan and ignore a certain order of operations, you will not get the results you expect or want. That doesn’t mean you have to follow every recipe to the letter, or that you must know exactly what you’re going to cook for dinner before you walk into the kitchen. It means you must think through and understand the process. Process thinking helps you to recognize that what you do now should be determined by what you want to happen next, and next, and next…until the end of the process – a finished dish or a coordinated meal. Of course this type of thinking is beneficial in all areas of life. We reach a specified goal with much greater ease when we understand that today’s decision can be determined by our priorities for what will happen next, and next, and next, then allow the process to support us.

My grandmother didn’t talk about process, she just instructed me to always read through an entire recipe before I ever started to get out ingredients, pans, or bowls. There were several reasons for this. One was to make sure that all the ingredients were available in the kitchen. One was so I would only get out what I needed and make less of a mess in her kitchen. One was so that I wouldn’t dump dry ingredients and liquids together until it was time to do so and create a batter that had to be thrown away. She couldn’t stand to waste food. She also wanted to make sure I would properly preheat the oven and prepare the proper baking dish in advance. She didn’t like to waste time either. Once I was competent to prepare individual dishes, I carried this same process thinking into creating a timeline that allowed me to create a coordinated meal in which my all dishes were ready for the dining table at the same time and piping hot.

As a project manager, I have used the reverse timeline to great success when handling complex, detailed, and deadline driven assignments. Communicating instructions based on what must happen one or two steps past that specific instruction streamlines the process and narrows the margin for error. Understanding the process also allows me to be more swift and flexible in finding solutions to problems because I have a clear understanding of what is critical and what is not in achieving a desired result. These are skills I desire in all employees. These are skills I developed in the kitchen before I reached junior high. I simply built on them in secondary school, college, and at work.

I suspect the boys in my junior high were learning a great deal about process thinking in Wood Shop too. If they failed to allow for the thickness of a piece of wood in their overall measurements, they would not cut boards to the proper length when building a cabinet. If they didn’t understand how the equipment worked, they could lose an appendage. I’m certain that these skills serve them well whether they became bankers, writers, carpenters, or electricians.

We worry so much about declining standardized test scores and how to fix the schools. In spite of much discussion, we have made little headway. Perhaps the solution to improvement is quite simple, and possibly delicious. Get the kids in the kitchen and get things cooking!