The nightly ritual chez moi involves watching at least part of an episode of “Mythbusters” on Netflix. If you haven’t seen it, the hosts of the show, Jamie and Adam along with their colleagues explore myths and legends to see if they have any scientific validity. They’ve made a lead balloon that flew; they’ve launched a plane from a conveyer belt of sorts.
Even when the myth they’re testing gets “busted,” or found to be invalid, they keep experimenting to find out what would have to happen to achieve the intended effect. Such as building a human analog with the necessary plumbing to see if it were true that relieving one’s self on an electrified rail would result in electrocution.
When I learned to cook at my father’s elbow, it wasn’t that different.
When Dad was a year younger than me, he had the first in a series of heart attacks that landed him on disability eighteen months later. The legacy of a high stress job as a biochemist combined with years smoking, being sedentary, and letting his weight get out of hand lead to all of it. He wound up on a raft load of medications that didn’t seem to work that well, except for the nitro tabs that relieved his angina.
And then there was the question of salt-free cooking. Salt works its magic not just by enhancing flavors, but by facilitating chemical reactions such as those in baking.
Somewhere in that year and a half, my mother passed on. We–Dad, my brother, and I–had to learn how to cook, and do so quickly to save ourselves from my well meaning but culinary challenged paternal grandmother who moved in with us to help out. My sister had already been launched and was a good cook in her own right, so she was spared the horror of American chop suey (a melange of hamburger, cooked elbow macaroni, and tomato sauce. Nothing else. Yes, it was that bad, and the lack of salt made it worse). (However, to Gram’s credit, she had been a highly respected elementary school teacher. She just never quite got the cooking thing down very well. Except for Jell-o. She made the best cherry walnut Jell-o.)
Forgive the digression. So Dad ran out to our local friendly bookstore and bought every cookbook covering beginning cooking and living salt-free. With the same determination and curiosity that Jamie and Adam use in debunking urban legends, he went about debunking the notion that salt-free food was inherently nasty.
Successes were many. The soup I still weep for; the tomato sauce recipe I still use; his homemade bread; grilling all worked pretty well thanks to the judicious addition of extra herbs, garlic, and lemon juice or a splash of wine.
The flops: anything involving reduced sodium baking powder until he realized that the conversion table was all wrong and it took a tablespoon of it to give the cornbread the needed loft; the first loaves of bread that could have made doorstops. Like Jamie and Adam, he used his scientific knowledge to recalculate and reach the intended effect.
And the totally unintended: a batch of yeast dough that went completely berserk and kept growing, even in the refrigerator.
So we grew into good cooks. And it was a lot more fun learning science that way than in the classroom. “Put the baking powder in. Now put in the vinegar. See, that’s what happens when you mix acid with alkaline. Don’t ever do it with anything stronger.”
I kept my curiosity contained to the kitchen, thankfully. If Google had been around then, and I’d had some of the friends I have now, there would likely be a crater someplace that we might know something about. Or pleading the Fifth over.
So I keep channeling my curiosity into cuisine. Especially now that I have the restrictions on grains and dairy. It’s fun to approach the new lessons as I did as a ten year old in Dad’s kitchen.
And sometimes, if I can really still my mind, I can sense his presence.