Food and the New Physics

What broccoli does when no one is looking: Nathan Myhrvold's new cookbook Modernist Cuisine climbs inside the pot. (Photo: Intellectual Ventures)

Your grandmother?might not?recognize?the food a?molecular gastronomist puts on her plate: flavored smokes, foams, Xanthan gum?and?liquid nitrogen, can all?make their way — deliciously? –?into a meal.?Food is altered and?reimagined, and sometimes made unrecognizable. Science and food, of course, are not strange bedfellows.?People in white coats?have been tinkering?in food labs for?decades, experimenting with ingredients and with?ways to make food production safer and more efficient. But you have to wonder, have the practical applications of science in the kitchen?taken?a back seat to?all this whimsy?

Marketplace Segment

Food and the New Physics

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In the latest Freakonomics Radio Marketplace segment, Kai Ryssdal talks with Stephen Dubner about?the?invasion of scientists in the kitchen. They dig into a new cookbook by physicist and chef Nathan Myhrvold called Modernist Cuisine. It’s a celebration of molecular gastronomy as well as a serious effort to bring science into the kitchen — and it’s big: 6 volumes, 2,400 pages, and a $625?price tag. It does have a few recipes your grandmother might recognize: a simple hamburger, for instance — but this one is dunked in liquid nitrogen, deep-fried, and then hit with a blowtorch. Mmmmm.

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  1. Peter says:

    I usually enjoy your podcast, but I have to take issue with Part 1 of your food show. I think you were trying for some sort of conflict that doesn’t really exist, between Nathan Myrhvold (?) and Alice Waters. Right after she says that while she’s enjoyed some molecular gastronomy, she’s not really interested in it, you have Nathan go on about how it’s better to understand how cooking works – as if Alice Waters doesn’t, or as if she had said that she didn’t think one should understand chemistry or physics! She said no such thing, and I suspect she understands how cooking works really well.

    The real difference between them is that she is interested in, indeed is revolutionizing, everyday food. He is playing with his food – nothing wrong with that – and engaging in extreme food. Fine, but unimportant. The price of his book and his cooking equipment indicates how few people will be touched by his ideas.

    Setting her up as some kind of scold, who doesn’t like things, is doing her a disservice. Her ethic is positive, not negative: find what’s wonderful, what’s authentic, what’s traditional, what’s real. Take delight in food, in eating, and in dining with friends.

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    • Andrew, duh says:

      “… she is interested in, indeed is revolutionizing, everyday food.” So that’s definitely not true. Do you go to Chez Panisse everyday?

      When asked in her 60 minutes interview to make a breakfast that an everyday person could make and enjoy, she spent 30 minutes cooking eggs on a wood fired open flame. There’s nothing revolutionary there.

      However, the conflict between Waters and Myhrvold is definitely constructed: Myhrvold eats at Chez Panisse, Waters thinks understanding the food science is important and valuable. Actually, that’s another place where you’re wrong: Myhrvold’s doing valuable research, which Waters even said, and he’s laying foundations for some game-changing inventions.

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      • Peter says:

        I didn’t see that 60 minutes, and it does sound pretty absurd, if that was her response to that question (NOTE: I just looked at the clip online, and they show her making that breakfast, but not in response to any question, and she does say that you don’t have to do it over a fire, a pan would work too)… But I do give her credit for influencing the free market in a way that lets me buy organic milk at a Walmart. She has also influenced school lunches in Northern California, and influences the market for food way beyond Chez Panisse. No, I’ve only been there twice, but, since we’re talking about my eating habits, Alice Waters has changed them. My family barely goes to grocery stores any more – farmers markets mainly, and our food bill is about half what it used to be. We barely eat meat, which helps.

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      • Andrew, duh says:

        Wait, you shop at farmer’s markets and your food bill is half? I think you need to recalculate. And re-watch the clip.

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  2. Project 3825 says:

    I don’t know why but I find the combination of Alice’s voice and the background piano music VERY disturbing. Is that what you were going for? I hope not…

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  3. Peter says:

    Actually, Project 3825, my theory about the music is that they are building a story about a snobby, aristocratic, cook for the elite, and a fun-loving, nerdy, scientist cook that we can all enjoy. It’s backwards, of course, because we can all afford her cookbooks (I have two), but his is over $600! Also her restaurant is expensive, but fair, whereas “molecular gastronomy” restaurants are REALLY expensive. Myhrvold’s cooking hobby is harmless, but of no use to anybody (he’s pleasuring himself, and why not… wait, there’s a word for that…). Waters is changing the way all of us eat, for the better. And the implication that Waters doesn’t understand the science of cooking is ridiculous and scurrilous.
    This episode just irritates me.

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  4. Peter says:

    Now that I’ve listened to part II of this podcast, I think I understand more about what Dubner is doing. He must feel that he needs an antagonist, someone to be against, and he’s picked Alice Waters. Strange for him, because usually he’s so positive. But in his choice of villain, I think he makes an error. Given his premise (food+science=good for all mankind) I’d think Michael Pollan would be a much better villain. He, after all, while not anti-science, has explicitly gone against what he calls “nutritionalism”, the idea that a few simple chemical constituents of food give them their nutritional value (an idea indispensable for industrial food production). I wonder why Dubner didn’t choose Pollan – I guess Pollan (smartly) refused to come on the show. But it would have made it a more interesting show, with a starker counterpoint. Poor Alice Waters, with her halting, radio-unfriendly delivery…

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  5. Anon says:

    @Peter

    I hope you realize that Myrhvold’s work is not mutually exclusive from the slow food movement. He is attempting to apply the scientific method to cooking.

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  6. Peter says:

    Anon, I agree… What he’s doing is orthogonal to slow food (as far as I can tell… and I’m not going to buy a $625 book to see if I’m wrong). Dubner is pitting Myrhvold and Waters against one another, in a dubious, easy way to give the illusion of conflict. This is endemic in all sorts of journalism. The insistence on seeing “both” sides of an issue squashes nuance and complications, and reduces every idea to binary “pro vs. con” simplicity.

    I agree with what Waters said in the first podcast – what Myrhvold is doing sounds like fun, kind of, but ultimately neither terribly important (to the world) nor interesting (to me).

    And for the record, I’m willing to bet US$5 that food printers will never be airdropped in disaster areas. One BSOD, and mass starvation? Just send them bags of rations.

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  7. Anon says:

    Peter I find it interesting that you only see Myrhvold’s work as intellectual masturbation. Perhaps you have only read the flashy information based on molecular gastronomy. The work itself is much more in depth on cooking in general. Perhaps you can educate yourself over on egullet.org’s forums. I can certainly see his work in view of improving everyday cooking at home even without fancy gadget. Is that not what you support with Water’s works?

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  8. Peter says:

    Thanks for the link, Anon. Very interesting stuff on egullet, and lots of enthusiasm… and why not! I want to clarify that I don’t think that the term “masturbation” is a moral judgment. I think pleasuring oneself is a noble pastime and hurts nobody! I support all hobbies that don’t involve dungeons. But… improving everyday cooking at home? That seems a reach. If he were GIVING the cookbook away, AND you subtract all the fancy gadgets, you still end up with a very large, complicated cookbook. 16 subrecipes for a hamburger? Compressed tomato? Sounds like fun to me… once. But then, I once built a model of the Cutty Sark (wasn’t very good, but was very complicated and fun).

    This cookbook reminds me of a Dyson vacuum cleaner. Doesn’t do anything other vacuum cleaners couldn’t do, except making vacuum cleaners appealing for men. But I wonder if they vacuum more than they used to…

    I have a suspicion that I don’t have time to verify. I think the lesson learned by microlenders is relevant, somehow: when men are given money, they spend it on sweets, alcohol, and tobacco; when women are given money, they spend it on food and education for their children. I think this book/project is a very smart, very rich man’s way of being interested in cooking, and will appeal mostly to smart, well-off men. But if you have a family to cook for every day on a budget, it’s entirely irrelevant. Not evil, by any means! It’s not NathanM’s mission, or job, or interest, to improve the world. He does what he does just fine. But I doubt even he would claim that the book is important to the world.

    If this project improves the way average people eat, anywhere at all, I’ll cheerfully eat crow, and my words. And my compressed heirloom tomato (and, by the way, I credit Alice Waters for awareness of, and access to, heirloom tomatoes).

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