Big, Round and Smooth

Cooking as a Sensual Science

In 1626, Francis Bacon plunged into a snowstorm to test his theory on meat preservation, fatally contracting pneumonia after stuffing a chicken with snow. In 1837, Rev. Sylvester Graham (inventor of Graham crackers) preached that vegetarianism cured alcoholism and lust, inciting Boston butchers to riot. Such are the spirited moments in the long relationship between cooking and science. In publishing that relationship is highly responsible, and generates dozens of new books every year on anti-aging, cancer-prevention, brain boosting and virtuous eating, many of them beginning with a health questionnaire for readers not yet sufficiently terrified. The Healthy Heart Cookbook, for instance, offers “The Framington Risk Score for calculating risk of death or premature heart disease within ten years.”

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Over the last decade science jumped onto the other side of the bookshelf—the side where, in Michael Ruhlman’s words, “It’s a cook’s moral obligation to add more butter given the chance.” Here, geekiness is sexy, science serves pleasure, and good cooking is a virtue unto itself. This is the science of deliciousness, a rapidly expanding genre including highly experimental chefs (Heston Blumenthal, Ferron Adrià, Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz), highly culinary scientists (Harold McGhee, Hervé This), food columnists (Harold Wolke, Russ Parsons), and other bold cooks with science leanings (Michael Ruhlman, Alton Brown, Jennifer McLagan, Diane Farley, David Joachim). Fall 2010 will see the hefty six-volume Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking; Jeff Potter’s Cooking for Geeks; Harold McGhee’s Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes; and François Chartier’s Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food with Wine.

But why apply science to the culinary magic of a soufflé, a croissant, or brioche? Can too much information on egg white viscosity, for instance, contaminate one’s delight in meringue? Non! Hervé This would say. “Science can be warm, cheerful, sensual!” he writes on his blog; readers need to remember “that at the base … is the experience, the wonderful experience . . . .” To Hervé This, cooking is about love, science must be translated through the heart, and we must feel what makes an egg yolk coagulate in an otherwise hopeful hollandaise, why gluten is so thirsty and eager to bond, and what’s up with the snobbery of lipids.

Sharing Hervé This’ delight in culinary indulgence feels like a little holiday. On our side of the Atlantic, such reverence is rare, our cooking and eating habits being far more perfunctory than passionate. In the vicious circle of habitual cooking and joyless eating, the science of deliciousness meets the politics of food, and experts in both camps agree that the missing ingredient is pleasure. According to Michael Pollan, Anglo-North Americans have never known how to enjoy their food. We have a longstanding habit of “disdaining the proof of the palate,” as Laura Shapiro puts it in Perfection Salad, and instead eat scientifically, as if food were medicine. The result seems to be high obesity rates and guilt. (Particularly sad is the study where Americans and French were asked to choose word associations for chocolate cake. Americans chose “guilt” and the French chose “celebration.”) So, what will happen if science is applied to deliciousness as zealously as it has been to nutritionism? If we come to understand the furious activity of, say, Maillard reactions, can we surrender more fully to the wonder of freshly baked bread?

To bake that bread, use Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio, the only cookbook you may ever need. Then, with Harold McGhee in On Food and Cooking: The science and lore of the kitchen, reflect on those Maillard reactions and their devotion to the flavours not only of bread crust but roasted meats, dark beers, chocolate and coffee beans. According to McGhee, odor, or aroma, comprises most of our experience of flavour, so why not learn about the millions of olfactory receptor cells packed in high up our noses? For this and much more on smell and flavour compounds, see The Science of Good Food by David Joachim et al. Organized as a dictionary, it is nonetheless rich in pathos (bivalves can never be tender and flavourful at the same time) and intriguing recipes (from Absinthe Suissesse to Watercress Cream Reduction).

Flavours are what the science of deliciousness is all about— creating, intensifying, and experiencing them. “Big, round, and smooth” fat molecules are especially good at adding, holding, and helping us experience flavour as Jennifer McLagan explains in Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient. After championing the nutritional value of fat, she sprinkles literary and historical anecdotes over a rich mix of recipes, from Carbonara to sautéed foie gras with gingered vanilla quince. In Anatomy of a Dish, Diane Forley is also keen on nicely marbled meat but mainly investigates flavour via botanical classification. Beautifully illustrated, the book is part botany guide and mostly recipes for soothing, satisfying dishes such as beer-braised short ribs.

Comfort food is comforting because, as Heston Blumenthal explains, our personal associations of a dish affect our experience of its flavours. Known for his techie leanings (mayo with an ultra-sound gun) and for creating unusual dishes like Sardine Sorbet, Blumenthal and his fellow experimental chefs are not known for comfort food. They have a reputation for clinically reducing, over-intellectualizing, deconstructing and fetishizing food, partly because they’re all steely-eyed men with big stainless-steel kitchens, and partly because they do sometimes serve weird liquids in test tubes and odd itty-bitty cubes dangling from wires.

In The Fat Duck Cookbook, and A Day at elBulli, Blumenthal and superstar Ferron Adrià explain and display their versions of extreme dining pleasure. There is no licking of fingers or splashing about of olive oil in these pages. Blumenthal and Adrià’s methods are exacting, precise, and intensely intellectual—all about intensifying flavour on one hand, and analytical sensibility on the other. This “sixth sense,” as Adrià calls it, is “the intellectual stimulation that can be derived from appreciating irony, as a sense of humour, decontextualizations or cultural references in a dish.”

Criticized for being pretentious, elitist “techno-cuisine,” is this food really about sensory pleasure? How does one surrender to “the experience—always the experience” of nitro-poached green tea and lime mousse? Of porcini foam? Can we learn to enjoy food while simultaneously considering the nature of that enjoyment? Do we want to?

I pondered these things, as one should, over a Pain au Chocolat in an excellent local bakeshop, and answers came, as they should, through gentle serendipity.

“Ah,” said the baker. “That is the ‘elBulli’ book you’re reading. I went there.”

“You’re kidding,” I said. elBulli has been proclaimed the world’s best restaurant for five consecutive years and every year receives two million reservation requests for its 8,000 places. He wasn’t kidding, and treated me to details of his visit: how welcoming and casual the staff were, how his party was free to wander into the kitchen where they met Ferron Adrià and saw a fleet of silent chefs working intensely, how remarkable the service was (fifty-six staff, including the kitchen, for forty-five guests). And the food—the food!

“It was—wow—we were there for seven hours. Favourites? So many, we ate 35 tiny dishes. Oh, this gin cloud our waiter pulled out of dry ice; it effervesced in the mouth. And this inverse apple gelee-rabbit jus—oh, and the chest full of fresh chocolates. My head was exploding by the end.”

Gin cloud? Is all this fuss really necessary, one might ask? Clearly there is no resolution to an analysis of pleasure; most of us agree that the holy trinity of food, wine, and good company are all we really need to make a meal pleasurable. For inspiration, Taste Buds and Molecules explains all about wine pairing and offers unique but simple recipes. Canadian sommelier François Chartier pays homage to the senses, posing questions that can be answered only with but, of course: “Why not add some roasted fenugreek seeds to a young, heavily iodized manzilla sherry to generate a developed iodized wine such as in the days of ancient Rome . . .?”

What, then, can be said about perfectionism and pleasure? Why not, simply, Yes—that open-hearted grateful yes that excellent food in good company so magically produces? My last perfect bite of pastry and the vicarious thrill of an elBulli visit reinforced for me the wisdom of Hervé This. All that really matters is the experience.

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