By Audrey Reid
Ever wonder where Alton Brown got the inspiration for his hit TV show Good Eats? The answer: Shirley Corriher, a biochemist and author of the James Beard Foundation award winning book CookWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking. CookWise looks at the science of the kitchen, like why you should never put acid on green beans if you want to keep them green or why potato starch puffs more than any other starch. Adding to her list of accolades, on April 8th, Mrs. Corriher was honored with the James T. Grady – James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public at the American Chemical Society’s national conference in New Orleans.
As a Gastronomy Student with an avid interest in food science, I was fortunate enough to attend the conference and observe first-hand. From her presentation, it was clear that Mrs. Corriher is a very energetic, spirited woman with endless stories to share about her experience, career and the writing of her book. I will briefly summarize the impressive list of speakers that praised Mrs. Corriher and her work, and discuss more generally the field of food science.
Arch Corriher (Mrs. Corriher’s husband) was the first to talk, focusing on the research and editing that went into producing a food chemistry cookbook. His main advice was to be wary of the surplus of misinformation available online and stick to reliable, peer-reviewed databases – Advice all good Gastronomy students should heed!
The next speaker was Ken Chang, a science writer for the New York Times whose science articles are occasionally presented in disguise in the food section. For Mr. Chang, the goal of his food writing is to introduce science to the public in a way that won’t scare them off too quickly. For example, he wrote an article in 2004 titled “Flour, Eggs, Sugar, Chocolate…Just Add Chemistry,” which discussed the scientific explanations behind Corriher’s “tunnel-of-fudge” cake (a chocolate ring cake with a liquid fudge core).
Sally Mitchell spoke next, bringing her perspective as a high school teacher who uses food labs to increase the efficacy of math and chemistry lessons. In one class, she has her students make recipes for molasses cookies and peanut butter fudge with the units in grams and moles ( Chemistry 101, the basic unit of molecular measurement). The tangible and tasty end result helps students learn basic lab methods and understand the value and application of chemistry.
Harold McGee, author of the more chemically focused kitchen science book On Food & Cooking: The Science & Lore of the Kitchen, gave a brief history of food science starting with the Renaissance Period and working his way through Haute cuisine, Nueva Nouvella cuisine, and ending with Soft Matter Science. He pointed out that even Julia Child used the methods of a food scientist, taking apart recipes and reconstructing them to understand what each ingredient did in the recipe and why it worked (or didn’t) – a method that Mrs. Corriher is known to use as well. Despite misconceptions, Molecular Gastronomy (a bogus term invented in 1992 with its own colorful story) isn’t the first culinary movement to apply of scientific theory in cooking.
Sara Risch, wrapped up the session with a supportive speech about the importance of communicating chemistry to the non-scientific community through food. As a principal at Science by Design, a program that introduces home school students to science, Ms. Risch attested to the fact that food is universally relatable and can keep an audience interested, even if a topic seems dry.
Shirley Corriher’s Grady-Stack Award honors both her contribution to the field of food science and her great ability to communicate and teach chemistry through her cookbooks. Mrs. Corriher has a sequel to CookWise titled, BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking, which evaluates the science behind baking. Whether a cook is science-minded or not, these books will entertain, educate, and inspire. Whoever thought organic chemistry could be so delicious?
Audrey Reid is a first year Gastronomy student, Culinary Arts graduate, and lover of food related science.