This article appeared in MIT’s “The Tech” newspaper on Tuesday 19th October 2010 and is available at the following link: http://tech.mit.edu/V130/N46/mcgovern.html
What were they, those three fundamental human requirements, now superseded by our busy working lives as we eat, sleep and drink on the job? A human being will typically sleep for approximately one third of their life, but when it comes to time spent eating, the time allocated to nutrition varies significantly between cultures and individuals. Personally, I spend maybe two hours a day cooking and eating, which is not much when split between three or four meals. I like to cook because I like to eat, not the other way around. For me, the cliché, “You are what you eat,” when interpreted literately, captures the importance of nutrition. If your typical diet consists of potatoes, beef and a dash of soy sauce, there’s no denying that physically, you’re a slightly oriental Irish Texan.
The modern public view of gastronomic matters is that taste is quality whilst nutrition is quantity. In fact, the word “gourmet,” an elaborate preparation of small but rich courses, supports the validity of making such a distinction. However, from a Darwinian point of view, taste should of course guide nutrition, rather than simply sharing the same bed. When I think back to a summer spent living with a chef in continental Europe, his vegetable mosaics were certainly well seasoned with those Darwinian herbs. And me, when I cook, I too cook as Darwin would. I am a fan of gourmet foods and drinks, but a scoop of ice-cream is no consolation for having put yourself through an astronaut-like emulsion of bread and mushy vegetables, void of pleasure although pure in nutrition. Cast your mind back fifty years, when people had soup for starters and rice pudding to wrap up; Desert and appetizers were still nutritious back then. Now, in our modern inactivity, our deserts and appetizers satisfy requirements of pleasure rather than sustenance.
I would postulate that the modern gourmet exploits of our chefs or “cuisiniers,” to arbitrarily throw in a French word, explain the relatively recent view that cooking is sexy, since those who cook well are a source of pleasure. Personally, I feel that being a good cook is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition to be sexy, unless of course you specialize in aphrodisiacal delicacies. To view cooking as sexy is to ignore its practical value, which for me is one of the true virtues of a chef’s job. We may only be a shadow of the hunter-gatherers of the past, but the fundamental requirement for nutrition and the preparation needed to make nutrition more palatable, justifies spending significant time considering our daily intake.
Cooking is indeed a science, and although we may not see it that way, chefs are in fact masters of scientific intuition. To be more specific, cooking is an empirical science, based almost purely on observation. In fact, the culinary arts are the purest of the empirical sciences, since they truly require the use of one’s eyes, ears, tongue, nose and fingers. Think popcorn, eaten with five senses!
Allow me to reveal this empirical science. You can tell a good cook by the way they chop vegetables. First of all, they’re efficient, dicing an eggplant into thirty two before you’ve taken the knife from the drawer. Secondly, notice that the cubes are all of the same size. You might think that diverse shapes and forms may look elegant, but they just won’t all cook in the same time. Then, when you bring heat into the equation, cooks have a better feel for unsteady heat transfer problems than mathematicians have for Laplace transforms. The vegetables go into the wok in an order the cook knows will allow them all to be fully cooked at a precise time. When the beef steak sizzles on the pan, although cooks won’t say, they know that the thermal conductivity at the boundary of the meat is changing. They won’t reveal the thermal conductivity but they know the required temperature and the required cooking time. Cooking, it’s engineering, if you’re good at one, there’s no doubt you could be good at the other.
Of course the process of nutrition is, or at least can be, intertwined with social activity (I suppose that’s why the unsociable hours and isolation of a chef are surprising ironies of their job). On the one hand social interaction is based around food and on the other hand we tailor our foods for social interaction, through barbecues or cheese and wine nights. Now, since tumultuous fast-food outlets have replaced elegant tribal banquets and technology has long superseded our hunting-gathering ancestors, concerns are rising of our quest for continued global nutrition. As global water supplies and fuels to drive technology run short, we realize that nutrition in our modern world is derived from metaphorical soils of decreasing fertility. So, I leave you with a random thought, a remark from one of my fellow lab mates, which underlines the challenges of sustainability and the progress of technology; the production of a one liter plastic bottle of can require hundreds of times the thermal energy required for the desalination of one liter of seawater.