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From The Editors: Smart Food

Larry Bean

Slicing the neck of a suckling pig immediately after removing it from the oven indeed will ensure that the animal’s skin is crispy when served. The practice, which dates to at least the early 19th century, was proved scientifically valid by Hervé This, a French physical chemist and pioneer of molecular gastronomy, which he has described as “the scientific exploration of culinary and, more generally, gastronomical transformations and phenomena.”

Part of This’ contribution to this exploration has been to collect and then confirm or impugn the validity of food-preparation proverbs such as the one involving pigskin. (In 1993, This conducted an experiment involving four roasted pigs, two of which had their necks sliced immediately after being cooked, and discovered that the cut on the pig’s neck releases vapor that would otherwise seep from the meat into the skin and soften it.)

This often collaborated with the late Nicholas Kurti, the Hungarian physicist who first discussed food preparation as a science in 1969, when, during a lecture at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, a two-centuries-old think tank for scientists, he declared, “It is a sad reflection that we know more about the temperature inside the stars than inside a soufflé.” The lecture was part of an event commemorating the 170th anniversary of the Royal Institution and honoring its founding fathers, who included Sir Benjamin Thompson, an American-born inventor, philanthropist, and statesman who also was known as Count Rumford. Kurti admired the count in part because of what Rumford wrote in 1794 about the study of food preparation: “In what art or science could improvements be made that would more powerfully contribute to increase the comforts and enjoyments of mankind?”

Perhaps because he recognized that roasting pigs and raising soufflés lacked the obvious cachet of splitting atoms, Kurti, as This notes in his 2004 treatise “Molecular Gastronomy: A Scientific Look to Cooking,” insisted that Rumford’s quote on the importance of studying food preparation introduce any texts that Kurti and This copublished. However, as Robb Report senior editor Sheila Gibson Stoodley points out this month in “Weird Science, Fine Dining” (page 175), her story on American chefs who practice the principles of molecular gastronomy, not everyone is convinced that the cause is such a noble one. One food writer recently took exception to the unique serving methods that the American chefs employ. He decried their efforts as “a few hocus-pocus chefs trying to make headlines based on things like burning incense next to a dish of venison and forcing desserts into squeeze tubes.” Another writer criticized one of the American chefs for applying too much intellect to his cooking.

Well, better for a chef to think too much instead of not at all and concoct what, in a 1999 interview with Robb Report, restaurateur and chef Charlie Palmer called “stupid food,” dishes (such as the fish-with-blueberries entrée he once encountered) that display no regard for the palate and are intended only to drum up publicity for the chef and the restaurant.

One could, however, argue that there is no such thing as stupid food, just people who are stupid enough to order that food. It was telling that the Colorado Gold Mine Company, a restaurant in Glendale, Colo., named its house specialty Fool’s Gold. But neither the price nor the contents deterred Elvis Presley from enjoying the $49.95 loaf-size peanut butter, jelly, and bacon sandwich after performing at a concert in nearby Denver. In fact, Elvis found the snack so tasty that a few months later, in the middle of the night, he and a few of his pals flew in his private jet from Memphis to Denver just to satisfy his craving for one of the sandwiches. You could say that the 22 Fool’s Golds they ordered made a meal for an unfit king, and his jesters.

Diamond Jim Brady had a restaurant budget and an appetite that were as big as Elvis’, but the Gilded Age financier who made his fortune in railroad investments was no fool. As described in H. Paul Jeffers’ Diamond Jim Brady: Prince of the Gilded Age (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2001), when he developed a hankering for the Sole Marguery that he had tasted in Paris, Brady did not return to France for seconds. Instead, he paid for the owner of his favorite Manhattan restaurant, Rector’s, to send his son to Paris, where he would pilfer the recipe for the sauce and bring it back to New York. The day his son returned, George Rector prepared a Sole Marguery dinner for Diamond Jim, who after nine servings declared, “If you poured some of that sauce over a Turkish towel, I believe I could eat it all.” Such a presentation, of course, would be stupid. However, if Diamond Jim instead had suggested that Rector serve the sauce in a squeeze tube, he may have been onto something.

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