What’d you have for dinner last night?
“Pasta with mushroom sauce.”
“Grilled cheese sandwiches.”
“Artichokes and cardoons and capers.”
“We had leftovers.”
“I would call it a chicken kiev.”
“Meyer lemon fennel treat.”
“I just got a hot dog on the street.”
So, what did you have for dinner last night? And, more important, why? Do you spend a lot of time thinking about what makes it to your plate, and how it got that way? About how this amazing collaboration of agriculture and economics and politics and science — lots and lots of science — gets roughly seven billion of us fed, every day? In this episode, you’ll hear from some people who spend nearly all their time thinking about that. It’s so filling we’re serving it up in two courses. So go ahead, grab your fork. We’re going to start you off with the cookbook to end all cookbooks.
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Raise your hand if you really like to eat. Yeah, me too. What’s not to like? Food is awesome. It’s even fun hearing people talk about food…
Alice WATERS: Something that’s timeless, really. Picking, you know, walnuts off a tree in the fall, cracking them open and eating them.
Nathan MYHRVOLD: So with a vacuum desiccator you suck air out, which allows you to dry food at low temperature.
WATERS: First thing on Monday, call the fisherman and see what happened.
MYHRVOLD: Water is a polar substance. Now what that means is the charge is not evenly distributed. That’s another way to say they stick together.
WATERS: I’m thinking about root vegetables in the fall and in winter, I’m thinking about nuts, dried nuts and berries, I’m thinking about jams and syrups, I’m thinking about dried beans of all kinds, grains like lentils and split peas.
MYHRVOLD: So then you cook it to perfect medium rare, then you dunk it in liquid nitrogen, which freezes the outside. Then we deep-fried it. We pop it in a deep fryer. Or we use a torch on it.
WATERS: I’m Alice Waters and I’m the owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California. And I’m also the founder of the Chez Panisse Foundation.
MYHRVOLD: OK, well I’m Nathan Myhrvold, and I’m both an inventor and a cookbook author. I trained as a physicist, and then I worked with Stephen Hawking on quantum field theory and curved space-time, and the origin of the universe
Alice Waters is the godmother of the slow-food movement, the locally sourced, back-to-nature feeding frenzy that’s epitomized by her restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California. Waters might be the person most responsible for turning “organic” into a household word, for leading the charge to eat slow food, simple food, real food.
Nathan Myhrvold is the former chief technology officer of Microsoft. He graduated from high school at 14 and had his PhD by the time he was 23. Now he’s in his early 50s, and he’s become a bit of a polymath. He’s an accomplished nature photographer and mountain climber; he collects rare books and rocket engines. After leaving Microsoft, he co-founded an invention company called Intellectual Ventures, outside of Seattle, in Bellevue, Washington. The inventors on his staff are trying to come up with a better version of nuclear power, a better way to perform brain surgery; they’re trying to stop hurricanes and global warming.
MYHRVOLD: Well, we have a whole diversity of projects and people. Right beside the kitchen is our insectary where we grow mosquitoes. And we grow mosquitoes because we have a number of anti-malaria projects. And you have to know your enemy. So we grow malarial mosquitoes, and it’s literally right beside the kitchen. We grow thousands of mosquitoes so we can test different ways to kill them, attract them, repel them. Our single most dramatic way of doing it is a device that spots mosquitoes in the air and shoots them out of the sky with laser beams. That sounds like something from an “Austin Powers” movie, but by god it works.
That kitchen Myhrvold keeps mentioning? It isn’t your standard little office kitchen — a microwave, a fridge, a hot plate. And Myhrvold doesn’t think about cooking the way you or I do.
MYHRVOLD: Cooking is an example of applied physics; because of course applying heat to food is the key technique in cooking. Obviously there are things you serve cold and you don’t cook, but the single biggest technique in cooking is applying heat. And the physics of heat conduction, or heat radiation and convection — those are very important to cooking. Chemistry is also important because there are lots of different chemical reactions. That’s why meat browns, for example. There’s a reaction called the Maillard reaction, first described in the 19th century by a French physician. That’s what makes meat brown. But there’s also caramelization reactions; that’s what makes caramel the wonderful color that it is. Most of the time on a menu, by the way, when it says caramelized, they really mean maillardized, but it doesn’t sound as good, so the menu says caramelized.
Nathan Myhrvold is part of a movement — a strange, fascinating, growing movement — known as molecular gastronomy. He traces its roots to the mid-1980s, when there were a handful of chefs —
MYHRVOLD: — particularly a guy named Ferran Adria in Spain, started experimenting with techniques that pushed the envelope with what was possible in food.
These chefs brought a lot of science into the kitchen. They used the tools of chemistry, physics, even engineering, to build new textures, new sensations. To do things you might not have thought possible — or advisable — with food. So today, in some of the most expensive restaurants in the world, they produce some of the most sought-after dishes. Maybe you’d like to start with the white beet soup with liquid-nitrogen frozen crab-apple spätzle. Then maybe you’d move on to the bison, pan seared with bacon bits and tapioca starch alongside a dehydrated leek ring with a goat cheese sphere and chili powder on foamed carrot juice. And, for dessert, maybe you’d like to smoke our virtual chocolate cake from a pipe,
For his Intellectual Ventures kitchen, Myhrvold recruited some chefs who appreciated molecular gastronomy as much as he did. Who looked at the kitchen as a place to experiment, to have fun. Where you’ll cut up watermelon in a meat slicer, and then vacuum-infuse starch into its cells so you can deep-fry yourself some watermelon “potato” chips. Where you consider the cheeseburger — the humble cheeseburger! — a piece of food that’s worthy of a scientific overhaul.
MYHRVOLD: The problem with a hamburger is that you would like to have the meat cooked perfectly, at least I like it medium rare. But you’d also like the outside to be brown and crusty. And it’s very hard to get the outside brown and crusty without having a fairly thick layer of sort of grayish, over-cooked meat. If you’ve ever bitten into a hamburger and looked at, particularly a thin hamburger, there’s only a very tiny amount that’s actually medium rare. It turns out there’s actually a way to solve that, and our ultimate hamburger is you take the hamburger and you cook it sous vide.
“Sous vide,” that means “under vacuum,” when you seal food in a plastic bag and cook it, very slowly, in a warm-water bath.
MYHRVOLD: Actually you don’t vacuum seal it. You just put it in a Ziploc bag so that it’s not compressed, because it turns out the compression of the vacuum we think hurts the texture. So then you cook it to perfect medium rare, then you dunk it in liquid nitrogen, which freezes the outside. Then we deep-fry it. We pop it in a deep fryer. Or we use a torch on it, a blowtorch. And either one will give you this incredible crusty outside, but because you put it in liquid nitrogen, that prevents it from over cooking, so you get the perfect medium-rare hamburger.
We should make it clear here that Nathan Myhrvold hasn’t been doing all this experimental cooking for kicks, or just to feed the inventors on his staff. He is about to publish a book — a combination cookbook, encyclopedia and science text — called “Modernist Cuisine”. It was produced by a team of three dozen people — chefs, writers, editors, photographers. It covers everything from microbiology in the kitchen to a simple explanation of heat and water – which, Myhrvold, notes, is the single most important relationship to understand when you’re standing over a stove.
MYHRVOLD: Well, it is an encyclopedic treatment of the science of cooking, how cooking really works and describes modern cooking techniques that evolved over the course of the last 20 years.
DUBNER: It has many volumes, many pages; give us some of the vital statistics.
MYHRVOLD: Six volumes, twenty-four hundred pages, thirty-five hundred color photographs, sixteen hundred recipes. My favorite statistic is if you took, the text and you put it all in one line at 10 point size, it’ll be six miles long.
DUBNER: Talk about some of the physical acts involved in making the book. So we’re looking at a photograph here on your screen, traditional cooking. And it seems to show, if I can tell without knowing, a cross section of a pot with something that looks hammy in it, perhaps.
MYHRVOLD: It’s a pork roast.
DUBNER: A pork roast. OK, and it looks as though there are fire embers, coal embers above and below. So some kind of Dutch oven-y…
MYHRVOLD: It’s in a cast iron Dutch oven.
But we’re looking into the pot as though we have 3D vision. It’s a cut-away. How do you make that?
MYHRVOLD: So that was one of the key concepts in the book was wanted to show people what happens inside the pot, inside the microwave oven, inside whatever thing they’re cooking in. And so we cut a lot of pots in half. We cut a whole microwave oven in half. We even cut a $5,000 professional steam oven in half in order to show people what processes are going on during the cooking process.
DUBNER: Presumably there’s not a lot of resale on half of it.
MYHRVOLD: Well we have two halves of one of the best kitchens in the world now.
Myhrvold is self-publishing the book, in early March. The list price is $625. (You can get it for a little less on Amazon.) If you randomly flip through the six volumes, you come upon some interesting things. Like an entire chapter on foams.
MYHRVOLD: Whipped cream is of course a foam, so is meringue. Bread is a foam. You may not think of it that way, but bread is what we classify as a set foam. Gas in the bread, which is created either by baking powder, or created by yeast, foams a dough and then we heat it in the oven to set the starches and proteins. So a tremendous amount of cooking is about foams, so we wanted to explain how do foams actually work?
Pablos HOLMAN: I mean, I laughed out loud! They made me some foamed baked potato. It tasted like baked potato with butter, and bacon bits, and chives, and everything in there, but it was foam. And I took a bite of it and just lit up. I couldn’t believe how good it was.
That’s Pablos Holman. He’s a renowned computer hacker who now works as an inventor at Intellectual Ventures. But Holman isn’t part of the team that produced the cookbook.
HOLMAN: Yea, my projects have been…I worked on a brain surgery tool, where we’re trying to make helical needles that could spiral into the brain and access regions of the brain that you can’t get to with straight tools. I worked on a system for suppressing hurricanes. Last year I tried to cure cancer, which didn’t work out.
But for the past couple years, Holman did sit really close to the Intellectual Ventures kitchen:
HOLMAN: That kitchen is pretty remarkable in that, you know, unlike your kitchen they have all kinds of amazing tools. They have a drill press and a bandsaw in the kitchen, but they also have a rotary evaporator, and a homogenizer, and a centrifuge, and a pharmaceutical freeze drier. And what they do is they make these really elaborate recipes. Some of their recipes their average is like 15 pages or something, and they’ll spend like two weeks making something the size of a grape, which is amazing. I mean, they can really do some amazing stuff. And then they feed me quite often, and I have no idea what I’m eating. You know, it’s always some bizarre thing where they took an entire moose and distilled it into a coffee bean and, you know, infused it with whipped cream. I don’t know.
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Nathan Myhrvold points out that about two-thirds of the recipes in his 2,400-page cookbook, “Modernist Cuisine,” can be made in a regular kitchen, as long as you’ve got an adventurous spirit and don’t mind ordering some ingredients online. You should, however, be prepared for instructions like: “drop frozen cherry spheres into hot sodium alginate bath” or “blend in calcium gluconolactate and xanthan gum to fully disperse.” And, if you’re making gel cubes from concentrated fruit, make sure you know the acidity level so you’ll know whether to use sodium hexamethaphosphate or methylcellulose E4M as your gelling agent.
Sounds fun, doesn’t it? I’ll tell you one person who doesn’t think it’s fun: Alice Waters. I asked her what she thinks of molecular gastronomy:
WATERS: I can’t say that I care a lot about it. I can’t say that.
DUBNER: And tell me why.
WATERS: Because I’m trying to get back to a kind of taste of food for what it is.
DUBNER: And molecular gastronomy is trying to accomplish what in your view?
WATERS: 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.
DUBNER: I’m just curious, I have to ask, have you ever eaten a Big Mac, l
WATERS: I did one time, actually I did. I went to Kansas and I was on the way to a board meeting at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. And I came in on a plane and hadn’t eaten. And I thought I should get a little bite some place before I went to the meeting. Then I decided I would do this little experiment and went to McDonald’s drive through. And in and out in five minutes.
DUBNER: And? How was it?
WATERS: For me, it wasn’t tasty. It was soft bread and salty, french fries. Really objectively, it was kind of nondescript.
So Alice Waters doesn’t like Big Macs at all, and she thinks people like Nathan Myhrvold are mad scientists. Their pyrotechnics might be entertaining if you didn’t have something better to do — if you didn’t have, maybe, an open hearth where you can fry a free-range egg on a long-handled metal spoon and serve it over a salad of chives and tomatoes, along with some organic bread. Alice Waters’ idea of advancing the way we eat is to reconnect with the past — not only how our food is prepared, but how it’s grown, or raised, or caught. What she’s after, above all, is simplicity.
Nathan Myhrvold, for his part, loves Chez Panisse, Waters’s restaurant. But he also loves complexity. And he loves bringing science into the kitchen. Because, he says, it’s already there.
MYHRVOLD: 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.
Nathan Myhrvold and Alice Waters both have an obvious passion for the future of food, but radically different ways to realize that vision. Myhrvold has a pharmaceutical freeze dryer that retails for $50,000. Waters doesn’t even own a microwave. But the amazing thing is that her ideas have gained so much ground. A few decades ago, the organic-food movement was fringe at best; now, the USDA approves organic foods to be sold at Walmart.
But what about Myhrvold’s experimental approach? Is supercharging your dinner with ingredients that are centrifuged at 60,000 RPM really worthwhile? Cutting a microwave in half is good for grins — but is that all? Is Myhrvold’s $600 cookbook just a new toy for the Tesla crowd, or is there a chance that all his scientific inquiry might trickle down to you and me? Or, better yet, to the hundreds of millions of people who could care less about molecular gastronomy because they’re too busy trying to scrounge up a bowl of rice so their kids don’t go to bed hungry.
The fact is that there’s already a lot more science in your kitchen, and in your food, than you might think. But…how much is too much? That’s the question we’ll try to answer in part two of this episode. We’ll look at the history of food science — did you know there was a Napoleonic X Prize that led to a food breakthrough that’s in your kitchen right now? And we’ll travel from France to a tomato farm in Morristown, Indiana, with a story about the invention that you probably benefitted from just this morning, when you had breakfast.
Philip NELSON: “But a company called Tropicana came to my office and said do you think it will work for orange juice? And with my fingers crossed, I said,
Well, I think so.’ And so, we actually changed the citrus industry with the not from concentrate orange juice.”
So we’ll look at the history of food science, but we’ll also peer into the food future. Because as far as we’ve come, there are still problems to be solved. Here’s Pablos Holman again, the hacker-turned-inventor who works at Intellectual Ventures:
HOLMAN: The way we eat is wildly inefficient. My understanding is about 50 percent of the food we generate industrially doesn’t get consumed. Half of it gets consumed on a caloric basis, half of it gets consumed; the other half goes in the dump one way or another. Every grocery store in America is throwing out 2,000 pounds a week in expired food. Half of the produce, I mean all of this stuff is going in the dumpster, at restaurants as well.
DUBNER: So that’s the problem, as Holman sees it. What we wanted to know is: does he have any solutions?
HOLMAN: I started at looking at ways to improve all of that. Partly because, being selfish American, I just wanted a faster, cheaper way to eat that was higher quality, better nutrition, better flavor and all that.
I cannot wait for you to hear what he came up with. If you think Alice Waters didn’t like a Big Mac — well, she’s not going to like this idea either, not one bit. We’ll tell you all about it part 2 of “Waiter, There’s a Physicist in My Soup.” For now, bon appétit — and watch your fingers in that centrifuge!
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Freakonomics Radio is a co-production of WNYC, American Public Media and Dubner Productions. You can find more audio at freakonomicsradio.com. And if you want to read more about the hidden side of everything, go to Freakonomics.com.