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Art and Science

Nov
12
2007

Craft is the nexus, an apogee, of art and science. During my 20-plus year career as a computer programmer and editor of programming magazines there was a constant discussion of whether good programming was an art or a science. It was, and still is, both. Like cooking, it begins with science — verifiable facts, mathematics, technology, and logic — but real success required art — intuition, a sense of proportion, the search for an indefinable elegance.

Click to view larger versionThis combination of art and science is craft. And cooking is a craft.

A couple of years ago Harold McGee published his monumental revision of On Food and Cooking. A massive update of the first edition, I read its 818 pages of text while in the hospital. Yes. The whole thing. Cover to cover. I had nothing else to do and it was better than watching the Food Network.

The book is technical and addresses things like the chemical structure of different sugars, what browning meat does and doesn’t do, and differences in the protein content of flours. An intensely geekish/nerdish/scientific exploration of food and cooking, it is the seminal work on the science of food addressed to non-scientists.

If you want to understand the science end of cooking, you’ve got to do the homework. And, just between us, the restaurants of the world, even the expensive ones, are filled with chefs who know what to do but not why they do it. McGee and those who followed along behind him like Russ Parsons and Peter Barham made the science of cooking accessible, if not easy.

Knowing why something works or doesn’t enables you to decided when to use a technique or ingredient and when not. As a computer programmer knowing how OR and AND gates worked enabled me to make better software decisions even though I had no direct contact with those digital microstructures the gates controlled. Knowing that the browned character of a broiled steak and a loaf of bread are related and that browned sugar or caramel is something entirely different is fundamental to the science side of cooking. Few of us know science when we taste it, and yet we taste it every day.

The other side of the craft of cooking, like programming, is art. And that’s the hard part. Intuition and a sense of elegance are hard to teach and hard to learn. Your intuition is different from mine as is your sense of elegance. And my judgment, however long I may have cooked and however much I may know about cooking isn’t inherently superior to your judgment.

As a cook I use my technical knowledge to inform my artistic sense. Last night I had dinner at a friend’s house and she had made turnip greens that were exceptionally bitter, a “fault” of the greens themselves. She asked for help and after tasting them I added a bit of curry powder. The greens were completely transformed. Still bitter as the wind in a North Dakota January, but warmed by the spices to make the wind bracing instead of soul-chilling. The curry warmed the “wind” (art) and the curry added rich flavor to a one-dimensional taste (science).

Cooking isn’t hard. Unlike most crafts, simply by eating for your entire life you’ve likely developed at least the beginnings of an artistic sense. But good cooking requires consciousness. It first requires bringing that artistic sense to the front of your brain so you can look at and consider it, and then, if you’re really interested, taking the next step and learning some science.

In the meantime, eat new things at restaurants. Explore. Take risks. After all, if the Sautéed Sweet Breads with Morel Sauce make you gag you can always get a burger on the way home and then tell your friends that the Sautéed Sweet Breads with Morel Sauce were terrible: “The cilantro in the sauce was un-called for and just plain wrong.”

Who knows, maybe you can apply a little art and a little science to figure out why the cilantro was wrong and come up with something more delicious — and even elegant.

You can leave questions, comments, and remarks here.

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