Sunday, July 03, 2011

Meals and the Human Instrument

When the girls ask questions, we try to answer. Every time. Sometimes the answer is "I don't know. We'll have to look that up." But we try to answer every question.

Which is how I ended up in the food science section of the public library. The girls love to "help" me cook. I do not love it, but sometimes force myself to involve them. I was explaining to them the other day that you must be careful not to overmix biscuit or pie dough, because overmixing will make the biscuits or crust tough instead of flaky. They wanted to know why.

And then I wanted to know why. In fact, there were a lot of things about cooking that I could not explain. Gluten bonds with water and forms "protein strings," but what exactly is a "protein string"? So I began looking for food science books in our public library. I chose one that looked like an introductory college textbook and brought it home to read during the kids' quiet time.

I have heard the complaint that as fewer people cook, recipes have become more elaborate, and we have reinvented cooking as a spectator sport, a kind of food p*rn. Cooking has been severed from the life of the home and family, and become instead a glossy photo or competitive game. Well, if Top Chef is food p*rn, then food science books are the mechanistic sex education manuals.

This particular paragraph in the opening chapter unnerved me:
Actually one extremely discriminating, painstaking, and unbiased individual would suffice [for testing]. But the human instrument is frequently inconsistent in its ability to discriminate different aspects of food quality, and daily variations in physical condition may cause variations in operating efficiency. A cold, for example, may render a panelist useless for days. Psychological factors such as preoccupation, worry, and other stresses may prevent a judge from operating effectively, as may environmental factors such as distracting noises, extraneous odors, and uncomfortable temperature. Furthermore, it is not always easy for the experimenter to know when a judge is not in optimum adjustment for the job of food-difference testing.
The authors complain primarily about the way subjective factors affect our judgment in favor of the negative, but they could as easily have complained of how we love that bread because it reminds us of the anniversary we spent at that bed & breakfast, or how we fail to object to the slightly tinny flavor of that soup because it awakens memories of our mother spoon-feeding us after the flu. Our enjoyment of food is not only about the food; it is about the complex of relationships and sentiments around the meals we share.

The book is written for people entering the food manufacturing industry, so maybe I'm being unfair to the authors.  I like to cook most of my own food, and I can't do that if I can't get safe flour and rice. I am aware of the necessity of food scientists in a large, urbanized society. But the depersonalized view of humans and their palates left me more determined than ever to cook most of our own food myself.

Food is the muscle of the home. Our family sits together at the table for dinner every night. Some days it is the only time that Az and I give our exclusive attention to each other, without half an eye on computer screens or books. We do not answer the phone during meals. Meals are not about calibrating texture and taste, but about making and sharing and enjoying, mostly in unquantifiable ways. Even when it is hard work, I notice that I am more peaceful afterwards. Our meals are the sign and promise that we are committed to this family we have built. Just like we were yesterday; just like we will be tomorrow.


  1. I agree with you, but offer a different viewpoint regarding food scientists--because I married one who does research and product development.
    They are scientists and have to look at what they do in measurable terms. They have to analyze and evaluate in a way that is reliable and valid. And then they have to take that information and try to create foods that meet safety and nutrition standards, taste good and are affordable. As scientists they analyze and develop. But as people, they think--how will this hold up in their own homes? Would it be enjoyed? Would it bring people together? Would it add to the quality of someone's life?

  2. Anonymous7/04/2011

    The reason that overkneading/mixing biscuits/crusts makes them tough is precisely because of the gluten chains....the act of rubbing the molecules of gluten together allows them to create bonds with each other for long chains of the gluten protein. The more chains there are, the stronger the dough is going to be, which makes it tougher once cooked.

    Also, if you find a bread cook-book for beginners or other basic cookbook (the joy of cooking has tons of little essays about the why of things), it often has the why of stuff like this. :)



  3. Oh man, it is downright comical what an imperfect instrument I am, exacerbated even more by pregnancy. Rob laughs at me because if I am really hungry I will effuse about a meal in a really unseemly way.

  4. We enjoy meals together every night and I really love to cook. What I have not found yet is enjoyment (or help) in the cleaning up. Why are there no books (or shows) about that!?