My very non-American boyfriend, when he sees me fiddling with my heart rate monitor before a run or scoping out the nutrition facts on a box of cereal, has a habit of taunting, "Fun isn't fun unless you measure it!"
He's needling me about what he sees as a distinctly American predilection for statistics, an obsessive need to quantify, rationalize, and reduce every enterprise into data: baseball into RBIs and batting averages, dinner into calories and fat grams, weather forecasts into daily average temperatures and percentage chance of precipitation.
Ever the data-happy American, I admit that I was keenly interested in the release of Nathan Myhrvold's industrial-strength cookbook-cum-textbook, Modernist Cuisine.
Nearly a month has passed since the books hit shelves. I have not bought them -- heck, I haven't even seen them -- I haven't weighed them, read them, or taken their recipes for a spin. I have not interviewed Dr. Nathan Myhrvold, I have not toured his laboratory, nor have I been his guest for a 29 course dinner.
But I have dutifully read the press surrounding the six volume set's debut. On the one side, naysayers claim that Modernist Cuisine is all about parlor tricks and pyrotechnics, that it's faddy, elitist, and ultimately irrelevant for home cooks. On the other side are those who argue that at the heart of Myhrvold's effort isn't the machinery or the chemicals but pure kitchen science, which applies to everything from souffles to pizza, gleaned from a meticulous research process that makes America's Test Kitchen look like it's doing the culinary equivalent of bleeding with leeches and performing anesthetic-free surgery. Implicit in this pro-Myhrvold stance is that knowledge is an absolute good; if some understanding of the inner workings of food is good, then more is better.
I find myself in the very unusual position of being on a third side, defending a view which I'll call "enlightened romanticism," because it sounds better than "willful ignorance," "science phobia," or "old fogeyism."
To explain, allow me to invoke Rocky IV.
In arguably the best five minutes in cinema history, the Rocky IV training montage, we see juxtaposed Rocky and his Soviet boxing opponent, Ivan Drago. Here is Drago, his glistening quadriceps flexing while a computer measures the power output; there is Rocky, single-handedly righting an overturned horse cart in the Siberian tundra. Rocky pulls a dogsled through the snow; Drago stands in a spotless training facility, clean lifting a dumbbell under the observation of Soviet scientists.
Maybe cooking, like athletics, can be divided into two camps: the rationalists and the romantics. Ivan Drago is Nathan Mhyrold; Rocky is Julia Child.
Of course, Myhrvold (is no one going to mention that he has the perfect evil scientist name?) was hardly the first person to bring science into the kitchen. He's merely adding to a body of knowledge that has been building for decades, centuries even. Before Modernist Cuisine came Herve This's Molecular Gastronomy, before which Cook's Illustrated magazine and Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. And before that, way back in the 19th century, there was Brillat-Savarin's Physiognomy of Taste.
Sure, there's a part of me -- the same part which keeps a complex system of Excel sheets and to-do lists to organize every aspect of my life, including scheduled fun -- that wonders why I muddle through with trial and error when cooking boils down (pun intended) to chemistry and physics. The right way to achieve certain flavors and textures is a matter of science, a problem that can be solved through experimentation.
Well, it's because cooking is when I get to lock that part of me in a closet for a couple of hours and finally get some peace. It's when I loosen my left brain's choke hold on life, and analytics and logic take a back seat to intuition, memory, creativity, and... pardon the schmaltz, but... magic. I don't have to be strategic, rational, or accurate. I don't even have to be sober. That's the luxury of being a home cook rather than a professional one. To me, being told the mechanism by which yeast causes dough to rise is like finding out how a magician pulls a quarter out of his nose, or Snooki manages to keep that poof in place throughout it all. Bringing science and systematic thinking to bear can ruin the fun.
Kitchen wisdom has been accumulating by trial and error since man first upturned his shield over a fire, dumped some vegetables in, and said, "Hey look, stir fry!" (I can only assume that stir fry was the first dish to be cooked in this manner, since it inexplicably seems to be the only dish that every modern bachelor can make). I have good old-fashioned kitchen wisdom to thank for knowing to rest gnocchi dough before rolling it, never to crowd a sauté pan, and always to use ice-cold butter for pie crusts. I'm sure some of my techniques and beliefs could be disproven with an appeal to the scientific method, but you know what? I'm okay with that. I'm willing to be a slightly less good cook in return for not having my brain hurt during this particular part of my day. And I'm okay with fiddling with a recipe all summer to get it just right, rather than deducing it from first principles.
I'm not criticizing Modernist Cuisine, or doubting its contribution to the world's understanding of the science of food. I'm just saying that I for one plan to stay out on the tundra, hauling a tree trunk through three feet of snow.
Follow Elizabeth Gunnison on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@egunnison