What Einstein told his cook 2
Robert Wolke (with recipes by Marlene Parrish)
New York, US: W W Norton | 2005 | 464pp | £19.99 (HB) | ISBN 0393058697
Reviewed by Emma Davies
At first glance this book seems very tempting; it offers to debunk old wives' tales surrounding food and to explain the science behind many apparent food mysteries. Robert Wolke is an emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh, US, and puts his scientific background to good use, explaining in clear terms how and why things happen in food. His wife, a cookery teacher and food writer, provides a series of recipes. The book has an appealing layout and is aimed at anyone with an interest in food.
Much of the book contains what I would consider to be general knowledge. It also takes a very obvious US angle and some of the references to US foods were rather lost on me. However, the book does contain some interesting food facts. For example, I learned that some of the tannins in tea act as acid-base indicators. This explains why lemon juice lightens the colour of tea, turning some of the tannins yellow. Baking soda, on the other hand, turns them reddish-brown.
Wolke also puts an end to the long tradition in my family of hanging a teaspoon in the neck of a champagne bottle to stop it going flat. Apparently, the spoon does nothing. Champagne doesn't go flat as quickly as other carbonated drinks because it has fewer impurities to act as nucleation sites for bubble formation. It is generally clarified by allowing the sediment to settle in the neck of the bottle after which the neck is frozen and the ice plug removed. Drinks such as beer contain far more solid impurities.
Wolke puts a great deal of his humour into the book which after a while I found rather irritating. At regular intervals are boxes entitled The foodie's fictionary, which contain lines such as 'baked Alaska - the end result of global warming'. Another describes whey as 'a contrary response to "no way"'. Maybe I am a grumpy person, but I found these little boxes irksome.
Having said that, this book could make good holiday reading, providing an extra dimension to family conversations around the dinner table.