In this blog, we’ll investigate some of those questions of chemistry that I’ll call Kemistry … with a “K” … just like the word Kitchen. I mean, after all, they are both related; they both exit at the same time in the same place.
I obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology, but, mind you, I didn’t intend to get a degree in Chemistry, too. But, I did. I think I can blame my grandmothers for that. As a boy, I loved my studies – especially the sciences. But what I witnessed in the kitchens of my grandmothers was nothing short of magic. There was no measuring. There was little conversation. I was fascinated with just how a mixture of such unrelated items brought together in a chaotic mess could turn out to be a loaf of bread, or a mincemeat pie, or a pot of chicken and noodles. Though I didn’t really know it, I certainly felt that their work was sacred.
My paternal grandmother was a rosy cheeked and rosy tempered Irish lass, an adept master in her kitchen. The twinkle in her eye, the music in her voice, the poetry of her language were all of a distant world foreign to me. She was kind, her words soft and encouraging, her manner loving. I often found myself in her kitchen while my younger brother and sisters were off playing somewhere while I waited – waited to discover the mystery of her cooking.
She was glad to have not only my company while she went about her business, but happy to answer any question I might ask. Not until I was a grown man did I realize that I hadn’t asked enough questions. In other words, Grandma didn’t really share anything unless you asked her about it. It’s not that she was being secretive. I think she had gone about her work, which was monumental on the old farm, keeping too busy to engage in conversation, feeding two dozen workers at harvest time. And, in those early days of her life, she had little competent help in the kitchen. Her only assistants being her frail mother-in-law who was pretty much confined to her rocker next to the fireplace where she could help snap beans or stir a bowl, and her young son (my father), a mere boy who was always at her side to do her bidding.
I’m pretty sure that she enjoyed me being in her kitchen, just like my dad used to be because once in a great while she would call to me to help her with something: “Joe, would you hand me that big wooden spoon, please? Thank you, Dear.” My name isn’t Joe; that was my dad’s name. Sometimes she would catch herself and blush that bright Irish blush. Other times, it went unnoticed. When you grow up in a big family as I did, you learn to answer to just about anything.
I was fascinated with the work of her hands, with her sacred art. I think the magic of combining a limited number of ingredients to produce a virtually infinite number of dishes fueled my early interest in chemistry – the kind of chemistry you see in the movies where this powder is stirred every so carefully into this solution then “voila!,” the solution turns blue. Magical. I even asked for and received a small chemistry set for Christmas one year.
But I soon lost interest. It wasn’t the science of chemistry that had captivated me; it was the magic.
So, I struggled with chemistry at the university because it was more a rote discipline: memorizing methods of synthesis; developing and using mathematics to explore physical chemistry; learning the rules that governed the very foundations of chemistry. I didn’t find it magical at all.
Now, after all these years, that ritual called chemistry is finally becoming of use to me. I now understand the chemistry behind the necessity to knead bread, how yeast works and makes it rise, how the building blocks of our body are laid, repaired, recycled if we only provide it with the proper nutrients in our food.
So, welcome to Kitchen Kemistry, a weekly rambling of all things kitchen magic.