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Culinary Chemistry

Opinion | November 17, 2014

I remember the moment I realized that food doesn’t just magically appear on grocery store shelves. I was 7 or 8, and I was standing in my grandparents’ kitchen, watching, transfixed, as my grandmother put boiled apples through a food mill to make applesauce. I think that most families just buy applesauce in a jar, but for as long as I can remember, my grandmother has been serving it homemade.

Food built my family. Both of my father’s parents made their living in the food industry. They both have degrees in food science from UMass Amherst—my grandmother in Home Economics and Nutrition and my grandfather in Food Technology. My grandma taught nutrition and cooking skills to adults and worked with supermarkets to develop new products and recipes, and my grandfather went from the army to Phizer to a company called Best Foods to the UN, working with food all the while.

For as long as I can remember, my perception of food has been very process-oriented. I remember standing on my toes to watch cupcakes rise in the oven or to watch chocolate melt in the microwave. I’ve never given this much thought, but after a conversation with Theo Friedman, I realized I’ve been experiencing science in the kitchen my whole life.

Friedman is a Tufts student and a chef. When asked to describe his relationship with cooking, he said, “I live and breathe food.” He recently gave a lecture called “Cooking, Science, and Creativity” to a packed room in Pearson to “illustrate the fact that chemistry and cooking are […] linked […]The whole theme was that everyone can cook and everyone’s a chemist.” Friedman pointed out that using science in the kitchen is unavoidable: “Even when you boil water, you’re using chemistry to boil water. There’s no choice. The second something goes through what we define as cooking, that is a chemical reaction that’s taking place.”

Growing up, I always thought that only people who really understood chemistry—people like my grandparents—could perform food science. I’ve always loved watching professional chefs on cooking shows use giant tanks of liquid nitrogen and weird powders I’ve never heard of to transform food, and so that was the kind of science I’d always associated with food. I thought that science in the kitchen was all or nothing; either you’re a molecular gastronomist, or nothing at all.

But in reality, I, too, am a food scientist. In fact, we all are, whether you’re making ramen in the microwave or scrambling an egg.

My grandparents’ brand of food science was of an era before molecular gastronomy, so I decided to call them to see what they thought about the role of science in the kitchen.

They agreed that there is science involved in food production, from farm to table and at every step in between. In my mind, knowing and understanding all of these processes should be essential to being a good cook. But 60 years of experience has taught my grandparents otherwise. Speaking over each other on the phone, they emphasized the importance of intuition and learning from your mistakes. In my grandfather’s words, “You can’t really be an effective food scientist without knowing about cooking. If you want to come up with a cake mix, you have to know how to make a cake.”

Talking with my grandparents about food science was primarily a conversation about the things they know best—nutrition, food safety, the chemistry involved in baking—but no matter what they were talking about, there was always a memory to go with it. My grandfather reminisced about how he came to study Food Technology: “I had started [college] as a premed major, and in my sophomore year right in the beginning, right about the time I met Grandma, this fellow in my fraternity said, ‘Do you want to be a doctor?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely not, I don’t like blood.’” My grandmother remembered a time she had to figure out how to cook alligator without a recipe (she ended up deep-frying it).

These memories brought to mind memories of my own. I remember the feeling of the cool metal of a step stool under my bare feet, the way my glasses fogged up as I leaned over a steaming pot, the smell of onions and chicken broth that wafted toward me with every stir. The memory is ambiguous—it could be any moment, any holiday at my grandparents’ house—because so many of the memories I associate with their home involve cooking and eating. I don’t think this connection between food and memories is unique to me; I would guess that many people associate food with moments of their childhood, and I think that’s why it might be hard for people to believe that cooking is a science. How can something that often feels so rooted in tradition be a product of things that feel so clinical, like chemistry? This is the question Theo Friedman sought to answer in his lecture, the question my grandparents have been answering for decades. You don’t have to understand water’s specific heat for it to boil, or know what proteins get denatured in an egg for it to scramble. In the kitchen, science is happening all around you, all the time.