"Cooking for Geeks" is a Tasty Dish for Techie Boomers
No one's ever described me as a foodie--I had to grit my teeth to make it through Julie and Julia, and my idea of a fabulous repast is a microwaved portion of Trader Joe's canned vegetarian chili, hastily gobbled while I peruse New Scientist on my laptop for the latest developments in nanotechnology and gene-splicing.
That's why I was understandably puzzled when my editor suggested that I review a new cookbook about Greek cuisine. But then I realized that I'd misread the title. The book is actually Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food by Jeff Potter. Although he offers plenty of tasty-sounding recipes, Potter--a software engineer by trade--spends much more space on subjects such as the physiology and psychology of taste and the chemical reactions that occur in cooking and how they contribute to the ultimate result.
I downloaded the Kindle version of the book, and what I have read so far already has me looking at the mysteries of the kitchen in a new light. I'm trying to imagine Nigella Lawson observing that scientific literature cites wildly varying estimates of the temperatures at which the muscle protein myosin breaks down when fish is cooked. ("Maybe it's the type of fish that matters...or maybe, it's just that fish," Potter observes.) Or pausing from a pancake recipe to point out the curious disparity in size between the United States and European Union definition of a "medium" egg. Or noting that different varieties of fruit ripen differently because some generate ethylene gas and others don't.
And Potter isn't content to explain the different types of kitchen implements and their uses. He also consults a kitchenware expert well-versed in metallurgy who explains the precise time and temperature (1,350 degrees Fahrenheit for precisely three minutes) required to properly quench a stainless steel kitchen knife to give the metal that impressive mix of strength and flexibility. The author shares the history of taste description--dating back to Leucippus and Democritus, who devised the elementary nomenclature of sweet-sour-salty-bitter 2,400 years ago--and provides a chart of the various chemicals that give certain foods their distinctive taste. (The Golden Delicious variety of apples, for example, get their flavor from hexyl acetate.)
What Potter is really out to show us nonfoodies is that cooking isn't some hopelessly mysterious, ethereal art, accessible only to those with carefully cultivated aesthetic sensibilities (or who look like Padma Lakshmi). Food and its preparation are subject to the same physical laws and principles of logic that govern the rest of matter, just like the innards of a system board or a web browser plug-in. There's no reason that any ordinary techno-dweeb with a reasonably agile intellect and prehensile thumbs can't hack food as easily as a mobile phone operating system. "Cooking has the same types of hard constraints that code, hardware and most science disciplines do," Potter assures us. "Processes (chemical or virtual), reactions, allocation of resources (more veggies!) and timing all matter. And while each discipline has standard techniques for solving these constraints, invariably there are other clever alternatives."
One drawback to the book: Nonmeat-eaters like me could use more veggie main courses. Even so, there are plenty of recipes in Cooking for Geeks that look tasty, even if I have to substitute soy chicken or beef. I'm surprised by how eager I am to taste Potter's recipes for butternut squash soup and poached pears in red wine, even if I have to cook them myself.
BTW, here's an audio clip of a National Public Radio program featuring the author.
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