What Einstein Told His Cook by Robert L. Wolke. Probably “get out.”

What Einstein Told his Cook

Finished April 2015
Recommended for fans of David Sedaris’ writing who don’t know much about cooking
 ★    ★    1/2

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 AnswersCharlie_Brown's_Super_Book_of_Questions_and_AnswersAlthough 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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)
  4. 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).
  5. 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.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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4 Responses to What Einstein Told His Cook by Robert L. Wolke. Probably “get out.”

  1. 1stavenue says:

    I was so excited when I saw you reading this book. What a disappointment it turned out to be though. Most disappointing is this part: “the kind of answer that dismisses the question as it pretends to answer.” Processed sugar and all issues surrounding it are complex and nuanced, but it’s not impossible to sum up briefly. The author’s flippant attitude towards it lessens my interest in his writing.

    • thebookgator says:

      It might still work for you–I’d certainly be interested to hear your thoughts. I think I was expecting a science-y explanation of each topic (what baking soda does, what is clarified butter for and how do you make it, why you should remove the white foam that occurs when you are making meat-stock soups) but when he then accepted questions with clear implications/issues for health/politics, he ignored the larger issue.

      For instance, on the sugar issue, other non-mentioned aspects include byproducts of manufacturing, trace ingredients related to manufacturing, trace elements in the original substance that get removed, etc. Then the whole issue of how much refined sugar we eat. He treats sea salt roughly the same way. Ironically, when he addresses a question “why doesn’t cream cheese have calcium in it” and answers with information on labeling and RDA, he doesn’t make the parallel with his dismissal of trace ingredients earlier. I hate to get my reviews bogged down with trying to show each small thing that doesn’t work, but I did it here to show how the writing doesn’t satisfy.

  2. thebookgator says:

    I’ll have to check out the other books you mentioned. I was just hoping for something that explained common questions I have in the kitchen (why do you add ingredients in a certain order in baking, and does it matter). There’s a few of those questions, but not enough for me. And because of the Einstein mention, I expected physics-y stuff too. But when one strays into health and political aspects, I expect those won’t be ignored/dismissed. The recipes aren’t really that easy/healthy, so I don’t feel they bring anything special to the presentation.
    The short answer of the cream cheese has to do with how it is made, and that the nutritional labeling has to do with percent of recommended daily allowance. So if it is miniscule, it will show up as 0% or <0% on the label for RDA. Its almost the same answer for why some foods are labeled as having less than 1% trans fats but aren't allowed to say "free of trans fats."

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