Q: What book do you remember from your childhood as irritating?
When I was somewhere around seven years old, I was given Charlie Brown’s Super Book of Questions and Answers. Although I’ve never been a question-and-answer type of reader (the questions asked never seemed to be the ones I wanted to know more about), I eventually came to enjoy the book for its information bites and colorful pictures of favorite comic friends. What Einstein Told His Cook follows the question and answer format, and once again, many of the questions aren’t ones I ask, in or out of the kitchen.
Q: What kinds of questions does the author answer?
Frequently, very basic ones (“What does the ‘prime’ really mean in ‘prime rib’?). Or very obscure ones (“Why does caviar have to be served with a special, fancy spoon?”). Sometimes even stupid ones (“I like my steaks and roast beef rare. But often there’ll be someone at the table who makes a nasty crack about my eating ‘bloody’ meat. What can I say in my defense?“). Buried in the last few chapters of the book are actually, rather interesting ones that no one else has ever explained to me (“why does my tea made from water boiled in the microwave leave more sediment?”)
Q: You mean the whole book is like ‘Dear Abby’ for people unfamiliar with cooking?
Yes. It really is all questions, with generally page-long answers. He throws in recipes that vaguely relate to the the questions for added interest. Chapters are divided into ‘Sweet Talk,’ ‘The Salt of the Earth,’ ‘The Fat of the Land,’ ‘Chemicals in the Kitchen,’ ‘Turf and Surf,’ ‘Fire and Ice,’ ‘Liquid Refreshment,’ ‘Those Mysterious Microwaves,’ and ‘Tools and Technology.’ You can tell by the titles that Wolke places more emphasis on attempting to be funny with his language over providing clear information. Unfortunately, the same thing happens with his answers.
Q: So why the ‘it was okay’ rating?
One problem I had is that Wolke pretends he is simplifying information by putting his ‘techspeak’ in parenthesis. However, he usually doesn’t elaborate or contextualize it, so it is actually more confusing. As a lifelong baker and someone with two years of college chemistry (including a year of organic, thank you very much), I don’t think I should have to furrow my brow at his ‘techspeak.’ An example of the lack of clarity: “The most common use for cream of tartar in the kitchen is for stabilizing beaten egg whites. It accomplishes this trick because it is somewhat acidic, even though it is a salt. (Techspeak: It lowers the pH of the mixture.)”
You’ll note that in his original explanation, he didn’t state why an acid would stabilize the egg whites. All his ‘techspeak’ did was explain what an ‘acid’ was (after first confusing the reader about what a ‘salt’ is). And, as a petty aside, I’ll note it isn’t really ‘techspeak.’ It’s science-speak. Save the ‘techspeak’ for the section on microwaves.
Q: C’mon, it wasn’t that bad, was it?
At times it was funny. For instance, in answering the question “After I roast a chicken, there are all these ooky drippings in the pan. Can I use them for anything?” he begins his answer with: “No. If you have to ask, you don’t deserve them. Pour off the fat, scrape the rest of the ‘ook’ into a jar, and ship it to me by overnight express.“
I’ll note he does do a good job with the physics part of cooking questions, particularly microwaves.
I did learn some things:
- The connection between sulfites and oxidation (sulfites are used in preserving foods–particularly ‘raw’ type foods like dried apples, bear, wine, baked goods, processed seafood, vinegar and so forth) and a reminder they can trigger asthma symptoms as well as headaches and allergic reactions. Thus sulfites require a FDA label.
- Pasteurization and ultra pasteurization (pasteurization is old-school heat and hold at 150 degrees, but fails to kill off Lactobacillus and Streptococcus, so you still need to refrigerate the milk. Ultra does a process of flash heating and then rapid chilling, and if aseptically packaged, could last up to a year—take note, doomsday preppers).
- Why some recipes will call for both baking soda and baking powder (baking soda is a single chemical that reacts with liquid acids to neutralize them, in the process releasing bubbles of carbon dioxide gas–I should have remembered this, given Suzanne’ and my experiences in basic chemistry–while baking powder is baking soda plus a salt that acts as a dry acid. Thus it uses a two step process to react and produce carbon dioxide)
- Why some recipes call for unsalted butter (different brands use different amounts of salt in their ‘salted butter;’ when chefs are making a recipe with a lot of butter, for taste reasons, it pays to be precise).
- And, for about five minutes, I understood all the differences between copper, iron, stainless steel, aluminum pans and all the variations thereof. Can’t remember it, except that copper is where its at for cooks, due to heating properties.
Q: Do you recommend it?
I’m upgrading my recommendation to a ‘sort of.’ He really is best when he sticks to the physics in the kitchen and avoids the politics of food. You definitely have to like the format, know a bit about cooking and want something you can pick up and put down without losing any momentum. Like Charlie Brown’s Super Book of Questions and Answers, this isn’t a format that engages me. Q&A lacks the details and context that elevates information from trivia to learning. And, much like Charlie Brown, Wolke prefers to avoid the politics of food, or even, on the occasions they intrude into questions, dismiss them. For instance, a question on why refined sugar is ‘bad, ‘ he gives an explanation of how sugar is refined, and then says, “when the molasses components are removed, will someone please explain to me how the remaining pure sucrose suddenly becomes evil and unhealthful?” Its the kind of answer that dismisses the question as it pretends to answer. Any dietitian can give you a dissertation on why refined sugar is bad (as opposed to fruit and dairy ‘sugars’). I really am all about context, which is why these Q&A formats don’t work for me. But if you enjoy it, he has a sequel out and waiting for you.