16 June 2007

Mr. Wizard & “Cookbook” Science & cooking

I was saddened to read in the news that Don Herbert, AKA Mr. Wizard, died on June 12. When I was a kid, I was a loyal fan of his television science show, Watch Mr. Wizard. For a long time, I wanted to be a scientist. I suppose Mr. Wizard was part of the reason why.

Somewhere along the way to growing up, I quit wanting to be a scientist. I think it had something to do with learning about ‘cookbook’ science. I remember a teacher using the term. It means following the directions on how to mix together chemicals and heat them or otherwise create a reaction that demonstrates a scientific principle. He very firmly explained that is not a scientific experiment. An experiment is when a scientist uses his or her knowledge of chemicals or compounds to develop a theory about how they will react when combined in a certain way to produce a desired result.

I was crushed. I thought a scientific experiment meant throwing a bunch of stuff together and seeing what happened. That sounded like fun. The scientific method sounded like too much discipline and work. Sometime after that I decided not to be a scientist.

I think there’s a parallel, though, between the scientific method and cooking. Sometimes people tell me I’m a good cook. I appreciate the compliment. I know a few techniques, and I can follow a recipe. But I consider my son to be a good cook. Benjamin can come into our kitchen. He’ll look at what we have in the refrigerator and the pantry, and he’ll check the garden for fresh herbs. Then he’ll just start chopping and cooking, and voila! He’s made a meal!

He has a natural sense of how flavors and textures and colors and smells will come together to make something good to eat. Truth to tell, I bet that the best scientists are those who have an instinctive, intuitive sense of a desired end result, and the scientific method is just a formalized way of getting to that desired result.

On Labor Day weekend, I made this recipe for grilled Tandoori-style chicken with mangoes. It’s from the May 2007 Bon Appetit magazine. I only had one mango, so I used it in the rice instead of grilling slices to serve with the chicken. Also, my wife and son do not like cilantro, so I substituted parsley, and I didn’t have any pine nuts so I substituted chopped, toasted walnuts. It turned out nicely, and I will make it again sometime.

1 comment:

Benjamin said...

Thanks for the compliment, dad. That's interesting that you make the comparison between chef and scientist. I've always made the comparison between chef and artist. And there, I believe, is the difference between cooking and baking. To be a good chef is an art, but to be a good baker is a science. That's probably why you're such a great bread baker, and I can barely bake a potato.

For really good Tandoori (like the recipe you had in the last blog entry) try New Delhi on Nicollet and 14th. They have a traditional tandoori oven, and it makes the best food in the twin cities, in my humble and artistic opinion.