Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Cooking Class I Regret Never Taking

Regret is a powerful word for me.  It is a word I try very hard to avoid using because it implies I’m wallowing in something from my past I cannot change.  Whatever the circumstance, hopefully I’ve learned from my mistakes and won’t repeat them.  But, alas, I do have a couple of regrets and one that occasionally pesters me lately is:

Not taking high school chemistry!

An odd regret, I know.  Only until I started watching Alton Brown’s "Good Eats," did I come to understand how baking, stir frying, braising, mixing, etc. is all just one big chemistry experiment.  No wonder I have felt so beholden to recipe instructions as I haven’t had a good grasp on the power and potential of ingredients when combined, altered by time, heat or refrigeration.

My 8th grade home economics class did a great job in emphasizing reading instructions and measuring.  I really enjoyed it.  What it didn’t do was teach me about cause and effect of the combined ingredients I was working with.  I could have understood the Table of Periodic Elements, which would help me understand weight, melting, boiling, solids, liquids and gas or been provided guidance on designing menus with complementary foods that are sweet and savory combined with varying textures all while considering nutritional benefits.  Or that water/moisture is the #1 culprit that promotes spoilage.  Or better yet, how to improvise when you are missing a key ingredient or want to alter the serving size.  The joke "better food through chemistry" can cut both ways!

I, like so many other girls, avoided science classes.  I enrolled in only what I had to.  As silly as this sounds, my avoidance stemmed from the Jerry Lewis film, “The Nutty Professor.”  The 1963 version scared the living day lights out of me!  The professor's wacky dental work, bad haircut and the ever-present lab experiments gone very wrong left my 5 year-old brain convinced that all things chemistry must be avoided!  Today, I recognize how ridiculous it was to base my decisions in choosing my classes on this lasting impression from a slapstick movie.  Yes, Hollywood can influence young children!  I’m living proof.

Girls steering clear of science and math has been an on-going problem over the years.  During my era of growing up, the gender gap was reinforced with the assumption girls were less interested in math and science promoting a lack of confidence in young girls to even pursue those subjects.  Based on these assumptions, teachers and parents, unaware of their own bias, would naturally help boys with their science and math studies while excusing the girl’s lack of performance based on her level of interest.  A vicious cycle.   And no less helpful in promoting interest in food chemistry, the delay of food science as a study  is not taught until college and only at select universities.  If my first classroom science exposure wasn’t the stinky dissection of frog and worm digestive tracks, I may have found science wasn’t all bad.  Fortunately since my days in school, much has been learned about motivating a student, regardless the gender, with positive images, experiences and reinforcement.  

I don’t have children, nor am I an expert at all the challenges parents face when helping their children grow up.  But what I can tell you is, now in my mid 40’s, I really appreciate the potential of a well rounded education especially recognizing what aspects of mine were missing.

Just because I’m not in school, it doesn’t mean I lack the ability to teach myself.  This old dog can learn new tricks.  Remember when you’d ask your mom how to spell something and she’d say look it up in the dictionary?  Same thing here.  I look it up on the Internet.  When I had a question about the difference of boiling, simmering or quivering water and how altitude affects it or if salt really affects the boiling point, Seriouseats.com helped me out.  Or our friends across the pond, The UK Food Standards Agency, helped me out when I was trying to understand how best to defrost raw meat and cooked foods.  These are just a couple of examples.

Food & Wine magazine selects Best New Chefs every year.  In this year’s top 10 selection, 9 out of 10 are male chefs (Missy Robins is the only female).   If you read each Chef’s bios, they have their favorite cookbooks where they still learn more.   In the past 11 years Food & Wine selected one woman chef in 2009, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004 and 1999, two in 2008, 2002, 2001 and 1997; three in 2000 (one was co-chef with her husband) and 1998; and zero in 2003.  Food & Wine has not published what their criteria has been when drawing their “cutting edge” selections. While my conclusion is not a scientific one (thanks, Jerry Lewis!) my guess is the gender gap may be directly relational to the lack of fostered education in food science that inspires creativity and that biases do still exist.


  1. From Barbara:
    Really interesting food for thought. I hate to tell ya but the frog dissection is still one of the first science labs in school. However now there are experiments with baking soda, salt, and other items in my pantry. My son doesn't know it yet, but his aunt just purchased "A Man, A Can, and A Plan" cookbook for him as he prepares for college. Women definitely move out of their parents' house with more understanding of cooking than men, and in many instances that doesn't change throughout their lives. Of course there are wonderful exceptions, such as John and Ric. But how many boys were in our Home Economics class (I received my one-and-only "smoke-up" in that class; an old fashion phrase for "Warning: You are in danger of failing!")? You know far more about cooking than I! When's our next dinner together?!

  2. Alton Brown one of my favs ...and must admit, I love the "science" of his cooking. Thanks for posting Sly!

  3. I also love Alton Brown--great show--and I love how he peppers it with science facts to produce good eats! I was a a science avoider, too, although not because of Jerry Lewis--ha ha! The good news is, it's never too late, as you are proving!

  4. John HamptonOctober 26, 2010

    Great read Sylvia. Another great scientific source is Harold McGee with his "On Food and Cooking". More nerdy than Alton but certainly more detail. All depends on your mood. Keep it up.


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