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Excerpt from The Fear of Cooking, pg. 342 (Houghton Mifflin, 1984):

Vital Aspects                                                        

 

Amore sol la mi fa remirare, la sol mi fa collecita.
Love alone makes me remember, it alone keeps me alert.
--
Leonardo Da Vinci

 

Maybe you think that a recipe is like one of those chemical formulas you mixed up in school, a clearly definable process. You measure properly, follow the instructions, don't make any mistakes, and you produce the best possible results.

Right?

Wrong.

Cooking exists in a much wider framework than, for example, chemical science - at least the way in which we presently conceive of chemistry. For the particular genius of science is that its framework is intentionally restricted to known and repeatable conditions, to verbal or mathematical formulations, and thus results can be reproduced "exactly" - the concept of exactness in science being "exactly" describable (well, in a way).

But in the process of cooking there are many subtle and elusive factors that never are and never can be itemized in a recipe. Here is what a courageous scientist has to say:

 

If you would like to investigate sauce béarnaise further, much can be done. I was impressed by how little quantitative control I had over the experiments. For example, the eggs were nonuniform and all measurements were unnervingly imprecise for a physicist. A thorough quantitative, controlled experiment is needed.
-- Jearl Walker, "The Physics and Chemistry of a Failed Sauce Béarnaise," Scientific American, December, 1979

Of course, there is a science of food preparation just as there is a science of drawing, of writing, of being a businessperson, or of gardening - but there is more. What do we really mean when we say that he or she cooks with love? Is it just a figure of speech? Is it just the excellence of technique? Or is it something else? Isn't it true that most of us know that it's something else?

These are practical matters, for as our awareness broadens and deepens, our understanding of what we are working with and how we are working with it changes and substantially influences the results. Becoming aware - sometimes in the very midst of the activity of cooking - of the larger world within which we prepare our meals helps us to experience cooking not just as a linear set of procedures (which it also involves), but directly as a living process; and a simple wonder at the reality of all this food roasting and simmering and steaming keeps the cook alert and contributes to an atmosphere in which something subtle and wonderful can occur - noticeable in the quality of the food that ultimately appears on the plates.

It's not that science verifies things that are wrong; its just that a particular science may be too limited, too old-fashioned. So, heavier balls used to fall faster than lighter balls (seems reasonable, come to think of it) and today, if the question were put, the response from some quarters might well be that Food Is Dead. In other words, life is just a molecular phenomenon. It doesn't matter what cooks say about all this - or whether they believe it or even think about it; it's to what extent they put it into practice that matters. This doesn't mean that chemical research and discoveries about the cooking process are not useful or welcome. It simply takes issue with the naive concept that chemistry (at least the stage to which we have been able to bring it in the twentieth century) is comprehensive, quick, and fine enough to stand as a model for the comprehensive, flowing, profound reality that is cooking.

A chemical description of asparagus will never taste like asparagus.

The reader who wishes to pursue this could begin by inspecting the article in Scientific American quoted earlier in which a scientist attempts to analyze a failed sauce béarnaise. A valiant and informative attempt - if you are a chemist. If you are a cook, unless you have a bent for chemistry, it's all rather peculiar. And that failure is inevitable is quite reasonable to anyone who has observed that in certain domains we are more sensitive than any of our instruments. Walker goes on to say:

 

Since preparing the sauce involves rather inexact measurements of ingredients that can vary considerably in their composition, I cannot be more definite about what is responsible for the stability of the sauce or about which remedy is best every time. I cannot even say with certainty that the sauce is either a lyophobic or a lyophilic suspension or whether its stability is due to electric repulsions between diffuse layers or to protective coatings of bound water. In short., the preparation of sauce béarnaise is more an art than a science.

 

But instead of despairing and calling it an art, a word that here means "not understood by science," perhaps it is better to recognize that even when cooking is pursued as a science, it is necessary to welcome the participation of the one instrument we know of that is capable of assessing very subtle qualitative changes (perhaps even in domains not officially deemed to exist), an instrument that modern science in its investigations rigorously tries to exclude.

Ourselves.

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