Food Physics and Freakonomics

The Freakonomics Podcast has a two-part series in the making called "Waiter, there's a physicist in my soup." The first half is on the Freakonomics blog on the NYT now and covers the topic of Molecular Gastronomy.

Physicist Nathan Myhrvold is releasing a self-published reference work called "Modernist Cuisine: the Art and Science of Cooking."  I call it a "work" because Amazon clocks it at 2400 pages.  It's gotten a strong endorsement from Harold McGee, and sounds absolutely fantastic.

Intrigued? It lists for $625, but you can score it on Amazon for $467.62. AND it's Prime-eligible.

I will stick to On Food And Cooking.

The discussion in the podcast is pretty interesting, but when they interjected Alice Waters as a counterpoint, I thought the whole "face off" on each side felt forced.

Waters points out that she doesn't personally think the Molecular Gastronomy movement is the way she wants to eat.  She says: 
"In my view it’s to, you know, make it into something you can’t imagine. You know, surprise you.  That’s not to say that I haven’t been delightfully surprised.  It’s not that.  It’s that I am so hungry for the taste of the real that I’m just not able to get into that which doesn’t feel real to me. It’s a kind of scientific experiment, and I think that there are good scientists and crazy old scientists that can be very amazing. But it’s more like a museum to me. It’s not a kind of way of eating that we need to really live on this planet together."
As the counterpoint (offered by Dubner), Myhrvold says he loves Waters' restaurant, but then he goes off on this point:
"Well like it or not, physics happens, OK? So it turns out when you heat a piece of meat there’s a set of physical principles that are at work. Wishing doesn’t make the food hot, it’s the way molecules bump into each other that makes it hot. And if you are going to understand that in a reasonable way, I think it informs how you do cooking.  Now is it possible to cook without understanding? Of course it is.  For people that want to just, in a rote way, to repeat exactly what they were told to do without understanding why it works, hey go for it!  You don’t need me.  If all you want to do is repeat the recipes of the past and you have no curiosity about how or why it works, then you don’t need to have this physical understanding. On the other hand, why does it ruin the experience to understand how and why it works? You drive over a bridge, don’t you hope the civil engineer knows why bridges stand up? Or you go up to the ninth floor of a building here, don’t you hope that all those floors below us were designed by a guy who knows how buildings stand up? I think that informing people, whether it’s chefs, or foodies, or the average person, informing them on some of the ways that stuff actually works, I don’t see how that is a problematic notion."

He sounds as if he's answering/defending against a different point.

I'm assuming that this is the result of two separate interviews, spliced together to make a neat piece.  But I don't think it addresses Waters' comment - is this how we should be eating?

Does Molecular Gastronomy offer a more healthful or sustainable cuisine? Does it promote appreciation of resources or the whole animal?

Does it add to our food identity, the lack of which is in part driving morbid obesity, foodborne pathogens, and a drop in food IQ?

Something I take more issue with... you don't have to be an advocate of Molecular Gastronomy to appreciate that cooking is science, and to know the science behind cooking. 

With a little work, you can learn the science in your favorite recipes, whether they're handed down or cut from a magazine. Following a traditional recipe doesn't necessarily mean a surrender to ignorance, particularly when you have learned the techniques and skills that allow execution of that dish.

I'm sure Myhrvold's 6 volume work goes layer-by-layer through those basic techniques of cooking. It's probably phenomenal (even if it exceeds the price range or storage ability of many home cooks).

But I'm not convinced - from this interview at least - that learning how to make watermelon chips or baked potato foam or deep fried carrot juice will help me to appreciate how food works. It might be that I'm just inexperienced or lack the appreciation or palate. 

For something as visceral and personal and compelling as food can and should be.... should that matter?


  1. Holy price tag batman! Who would pay that much for a book, no matter how promising? And 24000 pages? Who has time to read that?

  2. Oops, added a zero by accident. I meant 2400 pages.

  3. Haha, 24000 is close enough. :) I was surprised he self-pubbed until I heard that. I guess it would be a valuable textbook for someone really serious about cooking and really vested in it as a hobby or profession.

    Although now that I think about it, I think Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking was many, many volumes in its early incarnations.

  4. You're a smarty pants and I feel like I'm not smart enough to leave an insightful comment on this post. I'll just say something funny instead. Fart.

  5. LOL, I'm with Erinn, but I can say I wouldn't spend that much on a book.