Thursday, May 23, 2013

THE ART & SCIENCE OF FOOD – A Memorial Day Salute

Memorial Day's about remembering and celebrating!
As we head into the first of America's great patriotic, all-consuming,
over-consuming summer holidays, I thought a few words about  the wonders of food might be fitting.

There's more to appreciating this miraculous world than the arm's-length sort of discovery we so often associate with wonder. Some wonders we eat. The son of a restaurateur, I learned early and well to appreciate good food and to enjoy exploring new tastes.

Before I could even feed myself, my dad had a wonderful little trick for encouraging me to eat. He’d pretend his hand was a mechanical lift and the spoon its bucket. Straight up from the plate it would go. Chug-a-chug-a-chug. At mouth level, it would creak to a stop, shift gears and grind its way toward my mouth. I couldn’t wait to open the hatch and begin processing that load of whatever it was!

By the time I was three, Mom and Dad had convinced me that broccoli was really little leprechaun green trees, and Brussels sprouts, miniature cabbages. For some reason, appealing to my imagination like this was enough to get me to eat them—and I still do. In fact, both broccoli and Brussels sprouts are among my favorite green veggies.

You don’t have to be coerced to enjoy eating. Aside from the obvious (liking the way things taste), there are lots of ways to appreciate food.

Aren't the things we eat beautiful?

First there are the visual delights of food. Most of us appreciate a meal more when it’s presented to us in an attractive way. In fact, a significant part of becoming a good cook involves choosing and arranging food elements that complement each other visually on the plate. On the other hand, I’ve eaten things I couldn’t have stomached if I’d allowed myself to look at them very long: oysters come to mind, as do chapulines (fried grasshoppers).

I love a certain breakfast café in our neighborhood because they serve their coffee in clear glass mugs. I can pour in my cream and watch the perfect little “thunderheads” that bloom in the rich brown liquid as the cream billows and then settles, still cool, on the bottom.

Most people think putting butterscotch on their ice cream is about a five-second job. I like to take my time, drizzling it as finely as I can before the stream begins to break. This way, I can draw shapes across the creamy white mounds or hold it perfectly still and watch the delicate amber thread stack up in tiny coils.

How about that first bite through the warm, crackly chocolate surface into the cold creamy center of a Dairy Queen chocolate-dipped cone?
Then there’s the tactile aspect of eating. We’re not supposed to play with our food, but tell that to a one- or two-year-old. As adults, maybe we don’t throw our peas or smear our banana on the wall, but we still appreciate the way our food feels. What can beat the wonderful contrast between the tender inside and crispy surface of well-done hash brown potatoes?

Who can say they don’t love the sweet crystalline coolness of a bite of fresh watermelon (not to mention the ageless fun to be had with its seeds). And how about that first bite through the warm, crackly chocolate surface into the cold creamy center of a Dairy Queen chocolate-dipped cone?

There are all kinds of little science experiments you can do with your food and drink. For example, I still love to put my thumb over the end of a soda straw, lift out a column of soda and then lift my thumb to deposit it in my mouth.

I “discovered” surface tension by filling a glass to the very brim with milk and finding that, when I added a little more, it would actually go above the rim before it overflowed. I watched in great wonder the magical, dancing strings of carbon dioxide bubbles that materialize out of nowhere in a glass of beer.

I used to hate oatmeal. Since it was often about the only thing served for breakfast at summer camp, I eventually learned to like it, but not without inventing an element of play. I’d dig out the center of the sticky, steamy mass to form a little pond. Then I’d fill it with milk and sprinkle brown sugar “sand” all around the “shore.” This didn't just make eating oatmeal more fun, it also was a great way to make it cool faster.

Stricter parents might have taught me a lesson about waste by making me eat the vile potion.

Maybe it was inspired by the story of Jesus feeding the multitude with a few loaves and fishes. When I really, really liked something on my plate and knew there’d be no seconds, I decided that, at least theoretically, I could make it last forever. All I had to do is keep taking no more than half of whatever amount remained.

Most of these games were constructive in that they eventually led to my eating something I might otherwise have left on my plate. Others were not so practical, like my chemistry experiments combining a sample of every dish, drink and condiment on the table in a revolting gray-green pool on my plate. Stricter parents might have taught me a lesson about waste by making me eat the vile potion. I like to think that the long-suffering my parents showed was not merely tolerance, but perhaps a bit of wisdom.

"No man is lonely eating spaghetti; it requires so much attention."    CHRISTOPHER MORLEY


Grace said...

I just finished adding the chicken back in to my homemade chicken soup--so I guess that's like playing with food:)

I enjoyed reading about your food experiments--brings back some memories.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Grace -- I only wish I were competent enough in the kitchen to be able to play -- I manage to make a mess not just of the kitchen but of the dish :-)
Glad you enjoyed the post. I like your current one too (on moss).

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