Re-Examining My Preconceptions

2006.Oct.25 Wednesday · 1 comment

in Life

“The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can change his life by changing his attitude of mind.”

– William James, Philosopher and Psychologist

Buenos Aires – “They” have been trying to change what dinner is all about. It’s a mixed bag of they in this case – it truly started a few years before I was born, though had a wave of popularity during my formative years – things like boil-in-the-bag, freeze-drying, instant, all that stuff that threw science and cooking into the same room – the laboratory as opposed to the kitchen. Then it kind of waned for awhile, with the whole back to the earth movement, eating locally, or even globally (but fresh as can be), preparing from scratch – it was a backlash against too much science – dinner was starting to look like something that came out of Willy Wonka’s factory. But it’s on the upsurge again – only now, it’s got a fancy scientific name – molecular gastronomy.

The movement really began to move forward out of the work, and in particular the publication of books about the work, of a French physical chemist, Hervé This. Wikipedia states: “His main area of interest is molecular gastronomy, or how our knowledge of chemistry, and science in general, can be used as a tool to enhance culinary experiences, rather than the purely empirical knowledge which more often than not dictates the rules in the kitchen. He has written several books on the subject, that can be understood even by those who have little or no knowledge of chemistry, but so far have not been translated into English.” That’s not entirely true, at least now, I know his major work on the subject was translated into English in 2002 – Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor. Interestingly, despite being a very technical book, it’s completely readable – 101 chapters, each of them between two and three pages long – each of them explores some aspect of the world of food and includes an easy to understand experiment that was performed to figure things out, and the results. Whether it’s how to avoid lumps in your gravy, or what cheese and wine works best in your fondue, or how to keep your chocolate from turning white – he covers a huge arena.

I’ve ranted now and again about the field of “MG” and what I think of some of it. The turning of food into foams, gels, airs, and powders; while fascinating as a scientific exercise, doesn’t strike me as a forward step in the world of the kitchen. But I can’t ignore it, it’s not going to go away, and via the internet I’ve even made friends with chefs who are playing in this field, and I have to admit when I see what they’re doing, some of it (and I’m holding the line that it’s only some of it) sounds like stuff I’d even be thrilled to try – and probably even enjoy. Much of it even comes out sounding like food.

So I was perusing one of my favorite local food websites, El Cuerpo de Cristo, which, despite its name, does not seem to have any religious undertones to its take on food, and there was an announcement about some courses at the Asociación Argentina de Gastronomí­a Molecular that were an introduction to some of the things they’re exploring. I spent a bit of time perusing their website, and decided that for 142 pesos I could spend a day learning about something I know very little about – pretty much only what is in the book mentioned above, and a bit of reading in various food magazines.

I’m not going to say that yesterday changed my life, it didn’t even approach that level of impact. I had already been open to the idea of at least learning about something new. Plus, these were two fairly basic, introductory seminars. My fear going into them was that they’d be too technical for my level of Spanish, but thankfully it turned out they were not – they were both geared towards folk without a real scientific background, and technical stuff was explained clearly in simple language. Much of the information that was in the class was stuff that I’d already read in either in the MG book, or in magazines. But it was presented in a concentrated form, logically, and with lively discussion.

In some ways, the discussion might have been the most interesting – it was fascinating to see a mixed group of chemists, chefs, and folks just interested in food interact, argue, and explore some of the concepts. The first class was an introduction to spices and herbs but with a look at how we perceive them with our different senses, how different ones relate to each other, and how things like temperature and fresh versus dry affect the flavors and aromas. For some folk there the whole taste/aroma process seemed to be a nearly new concept, for others it was more matter of fact. While the class was perhaps a little more basic than I’d hoped for, it was probably a good place to start, especially in a foreign language.

The second class was very much in the vein of the book – with a look at some common culinary myths and an exploration of why they are or aren’t true. A couple of them were demonstrated, most were just illustrated via a projected show. Here, for me, what was most interesting was how rigid some of the people were – even in the face of demonstrated evidence, with scientific explanations, there were a series of arguments with some people clinging to their beliefs in myths that were disproven in front of their eyes, or explained clearly. Not surprisingly, the biggest discourse here was on the subject of mate, which Hervé This didn’t address (though he might have addressed it in regard to tea), a look at “best temperature” that devolved into a heated discussion over the best way to make the stuff – mate, of course, being the national drink here and subject to endless debate. The other two subjects that became sources of argument were the adding of oil to water when making pasta (it does nothing to prevent sticking, really, trust me), and whether or not alcohol cooks off when you add it to sauces (it takes a fair amount of time to do so, it’s not a quick process – but then, we’re not talking about a lot of alcohol, percentagewise).

So, a fascinating day, and probably more to come in the future – I’d like to try out some of their more “practical” courses that involve actual cooking, and we’ll see where it leads. Now, I’m off for the last round of cheese tasting


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