Kitchen science: evaluating methods of self-defense against onions.

I hate chopping onions. They make me cry within seconds, and those tears both hurt and obscure my view of onions, knife, and fingertips (which can lead to additional injuries).

The chemical mechanism by which onions cause this agony is well known. Less well known are effective methods to prevent or mitigate this agony in order to get through chopping the quantities of onions that need to be chopped for a Thanksgiving meal.

So, I canvassed sources (on Twitter) for possible interventions and tested them.

Self-defense against onions

Materials & Methods
1 lb. yellow onions (all room temperature except 1/2 onion frozen, in a plastic sandwich bag, for 25 min)
sharp knife
cutting board
stop-watch (I used the one on my phone)
video capture (I used iMovie)
slice of bread
metal table spoon
swim goggles
tea candle
portable fan

General procedure:
1. Put proposed intervention in place.
2. Start the stop-watch and start chopping onions.
3. Stop stop-watch when onion-induced tears are agonizing; note time elapsed from start of trial.
4. Allow eyes to clear (2-5 min) before testing next intervention.


Here are the interventions I tested, with the time to onion-induced eyeball agony observed:

Slice of bread in the mouth: 46 sec
Metal spoon in the mouth: 62 sec
Candle burning near cutting-board: 80 sec
Onion chilled in freezer: 86 sec
Fan blowing across cutting-board: 106 sec
Swim goggles: No agony!

Note that each intervention was tested exactly once, by a single experimental subject (me) to generate this data. If there’s any effect on an intervention due to being tested right after another particular intervention, I haven’t controlled for it here, and your onion-induced eyeball agony may vary.

Also, I did not test these interventions against a control (which here would be me chopping an onion with no intervention). So, on the basis of this experiment, I cannot tell you persuasively that the worst of these interventions is any better than just chopping onions with no interventions. (On the basis of my recent onion-chopping recollections, I can tell you that even the slice of bread in the mouth seemed to help a little — but THIS IS SCIENCE, where we use our tearing eyes to look askance at anecdata.)


The most successful intervention in my trials was wearing goggles. This makes sense, as the goggles provide a barrier between the eyeballs and the volatile chemicals released when the onions are cut.

The fan and the burning candle deal with those volatile chemicals a different way, either by blowing them away from the eyes, or … well, with the candle, the likely mechanism is murkier. Maybe it’s that those volatile compounds get drawn to the flame and involved in the combustion reaction there? Or that the compounds released by the candle burning compete with those released by the cut onion for access to the eyeball? However it’s supposed to work, compared to the barrier-method of the goggles, the candle method was less successful. Even the fan couldn’t keep some of those volatile compounds from getting to the eyeballs and doing their teary work.

Cooling the onion was somewhat successful, too, likely because at a lower temperature those compounds in the onion were less ready to make it into gas phase easily. There may be a side effect of this method for those chopping onions for culinary use, in that freezing long enough may change the texture of the onion permanently (i.e., even when returned to room temperature).

I am not sure by what mechanism a slice of bread or a metal spoon in the mouth is supposed to protect one’s eyes from the volatile compounds released by onions. Maybe it’s just supposed to distract you from your eyes? Maybe the extra saliva produced is supposed to get involved somehow? Who knows? However, note that it was possible for us to empirically test these methods even in the absence of a proposed mechanism.

If you have lots of onions to chop and don’t have a proper fume hood in your kitchen, a pair of goggles that makes a secure seal around your eyes can provide some protection from onion-induced eyeball agony. Failing that, chilling the onions before chopping and/or setting up a fan to blow across your chopping surface may help.

Scary subject matter.

This being Hallowe’en, I felt like I should serve you something scary.

But what?

Verily, we’ve talked about some scary things here:

More scary subjects have come up on my other blog, including:

Making this list, I’m very glad it’s still light out! Otherwise I might be quaking uncontrollably.

Truth be told, as someone who works with ethics for a living, I’m less afraid of monsters than I am of ordinary humans who lose sight of their duties to their fellow humans.

And frankly, when it comes to things that go bump in the night, I’m less terrified than curious …

especially since the things that go “bump” in my kitchen usually involve the intriguing trio of temperature-, pressure-, and phase-changes — which is to say, it’s nothing a little science couldn’t demystify.

Have a happy, safe, and ethical Hallowe’en!

“Forcing” my kids to be vegetarian.

I’m a vegetarian, which is probably not a total surprise.

I study and teach ethics. I’m uneasy with the idea of animals being killed to fulfill a need of mine I know can be fulfilled other ways. In the interests of sharing a world with more than 7 billion other people, and doing so without being a jerk, I’d rather reduce my toll on our shared resources. And, I never liked the taste of meat.

My kids are also vegetarians, and have been since birth — so they didn’t choose it. I have imposed it on them in a stunning act of maternalism.

OK, it’s actually not that stunning.

Why am I imposing a vegetarian diet on my children? For the curious, here are my reasons for this particular parenting choice:

  1. The family dinner table isn’t a restaurant. The choices are to eat what I’m serving or not eat it. This was the deal, at least when I was growing up, in omnivores’ homes (including the one in which I grew up). I may encourage my offspring to try dishes of which they are skeptical, but I don’t view feeding them as an activity that ought to push my powers of persuasion to their limits, nor do I view it as an opportunity with which they should build the capacity of their free will. I’m cooking, and what I’m serving has no meat. That’s what’s for dinner.
  2. I’m in no position to do good quality control on a meat meal. I haven’t cooked meat in about 27 years, so I’ve pretty much forgotten how. I’m not going to taste a meat dish to adjust the seasoning. My paranoia about food-born pathogens is such that I’d probably cook the heck out of any piece of meat I had to cook … and my concerns about carcinogens are such that I wouldn’t even be doing it in a potentially appealing way like blackening it. Plus, aesthetically, I find meat icky enough to handle (and see, and smell) that actually preparing a meat dinner would cost me my appetite, and possibly my lunch.
  3. Meat is expensive.
  4. Meat production uses a lot of resources … as does raising a child in the U.S. Having opted for the latter, I prefer to opt out of the former. This is not to suggest that I look at other people and do a mental audit of their impact — I swear, I don’t — but I do look at myself that way. Bathing and hydrating my offspring and washing their clothes uses water, getting them places frequently uses gas, and the computer and TV/DVD/computer axis of entertainment (and homework) uses electricity. Their homework uses paper (and we sometimes lean on them to use more paper to show their damn work). Call the vegetarian diet a do-it-yourself partial offset of our other impacts.
  5. Meat consumption is not a requirement for human health. I checked this very early in the game with our pediatrician. My kids’ diet is providing them more than adequate amounts of all the nutrients they need for their physical and cognitive development.
  6. A parent-imposed vegetarian diet enables a satisfying range of (non-lethal) options for teen rebellion. Think of how convenient it would be if, as a teenager, you could defy a parent’s values by simply buying a can of chicken soup, as opposed to having to wrap a car around a tree or to figure out how you can get someone to buy you beer. Yes, this is meant mostly in jest, but consider how many young people do make a transgressive act of challenging their parents’ values as embodied in their diet — whether embracing vegetarianism, choosing to stop keeping Kosher, or what have you.

Have I hemmed in my kids’ ability to exercise their autonomy by raising them vegetarian? Absolutely.

Even at the relatively advanced ages of 14 and 12, they still need us to hem in their autonomy to keep them alive and in reasonably good mental and emotional shape to exercise their autonomy more fully as adults. This is just part of parenting. My “forcing” a vegetarian diet on the kids is of a piece with my “forcing” them to eat meals that aren’t composed entirely of candy, “forcing” them to go to school, to do their homework, to bathe, to wear sunscreen, and to sleep at least a few hours a night. I don’t believe it is an outrageous imposition (as indeed, they seem to LIKE most of what I feed them).

We live in a community where there are many different dietary customs in play, whether for religious, cultural, or ethical reasons, so they have plenty of friends who also don’t eat particular things. (Of course, there are kids with allergies, too.) They have learned how to enquire politely about the available options, to decline graciously, and to graze effectively at potlucks.

My kids haven’t ever begged me for meat (although they occasionally express sadness that restaurants have so many fewer options for vegetarian diners than for meat eaters). They also know that when they are adults, they will be able to make their own decisions about their diets. (Same as with tattoos.) They understand that there are some rules they have in virtue of their being members of a household, but that those are subject to change when they establish their own household.

Occasionally someone brings up the possibility that, having been fed a vegetarian diet from birth, my children won’t have adequate enzymes for the digesting of meat should they try to become meat-eaters later. I have no idea if this concern has good empirical grounding. Anecdotally, I know enough long-term vegetarians who have fallen off the (meat) wagon without developing any inability to scarf down a burger and digest it like a champ that this possibility doesn’t keep me up at night.

I haven’t indoctrinated my kids to believe that meat-eaters are evil, or that they’ll go to hell if animal flesh ever crosses their lips, in large part because I don’t hold those views either. They are simply part of a household that doesn’t eat meat. Given that, what beef could anyone have with it?

An ancestor version of this post was published on my other blog.

Can we combat chemophobia … with home-baked bread?

This post was inspired by the session at the upcoming ScienceOnline 2013 entitled Chemophobia & Chemistry in The Modern World, to be moderated by Dr. Rubidium and Carmen Drahl

For some reason, a lot of people seem to have an unreasonable fear of chemistry. I’m not just talking about fear of chemistry instruction, but full-on fear of chemicals in their world. Because what people think they know about chemicals is that they go boom, or they’re artificial, or they’re drugs which are maybe useful but maybe just making big pharma CEOs rich, and maybe they’re addictive and subject to abuse. Or, they are seeping into our water, our air, our food, our bodies and maybe poisoning us.

At the extreme, it strikes me that chemophobia is really just a fear of recognizing that our world is made of chemicals. I can assure you, it is!

Your computer is made of chemicals, but so are paper and ink. Snails are made of chemicals, as are plants (which carry out chemical reactions right under our noses. Also carrying out chemical reactions right under our noses are yeasts, without which many of our potables would be less potent. Indeed, our kitchens and pantries, from which we draw our ingredients and prepare our meals, are full of many impressively reactive chemicals.

And here, it actually strikes me that we might be able to ratchet down the levels of chemophobia if people find ways to return to de novo syntheses of more of what they eat — which is to say, to making their food from scratch.

For the last several months, our kitchen has been a hotbed of homemade bread. Partly this is because we had a stretch of a couple years where our only functional oven was a toaster over, which means when we got a working full-sized oven again, we became very enthusiastic about using it.

As it turns out, when you’re baking two or three loaves of bread every week, you start looking at things like different kinds of flour on the market and figuring out how things like gluten content affect your dough — how dense of a bread it will make, how much “spring” it has in the oven, and so forth.

(Gluten is a chemical.)

Maybe you dabble with the occasional batch of biscuits of muffins or quick-bread that uses a leavening agent other than yeast — otherwise known as a chemical leavener.

(Chemical leaveners are chemicals.)

And, you might even start to pick up a feel for which chemical leaveners depend on there being an acidic ingredient (like vinegar or buttermilk) in your batter and which will do the job without an acidic ingredient in the batter.

(Those ingredients, whether acidic or not, are made of chemicals. Even the water.)

Indeed, many who find their inner baker will start playing around with recipes that call for more exotic ingredients like lecithin or ascorbic acid or caramel color (each one: a chemical).

It’s to the point that I have joked, while perusing the pages of “baking enhancers” in the fancy baking supply catalogs, “People start baking their own bread so they can avoid all the chemicals in the commercially baked bread, but then they get really good at baking and start improving their homemade bread with all these chemicals!”

And yes, there’s a bit of a disconnect in baking to avoid chemicals in your food and then discovering that there are certain chemicals that will make that food better. But, I’m hopeful that the process leads to a connection, wherein people who are getting back in touch with making one of the oldest kinds of foods we have can also make peace with the recognition that wholesome foods (and the people who eat them) are made of chemicals.

It’s something to chew on, anyway.

“Are you going to raise the child picky?” Interview with Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic (part 3).

This is the last part of my interview with Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic, author of Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate, conducted earlier this month over lunch at Evvia in Palo Alto. (Here is part 1 of the interview. Here is part 2 of the interview.)

In this segment of the interview, we talk about foodies as picky eaters whose preferences get respect and about how pickiness looks from the parenting side of the transaction. Also, we notice that culinary school might involve encounters with a classic Star Trek monster.

Janet D. Stemwedel: It does seem like there are certain ways to be picky that people will not only accept but actually look at as praiseworthy. “Oh, you’ve decided to give up this really delightful food that everyone else would wallow in!” I’ll come clean: part of the reason I’m vegetarian is that I have never cared for meat. Once I moved out of my parents’ house and not eating meat became an option, I stopped eating the stuff without any kind of impressive exercise of will. And, in restaurants that are big on fake meat, I’ll end up pulling it out of my soup. The waitrons will tell me, “Oh, don’t worry, you can eat that! It’s not meat!” And I’ll say, “I can eat it, but I don’t like it, so I won’t be eating it.”

Stephanie V. W. Lucianovich: You don’t need a meat substitute if the point is that you don’t like meat.

JS: Although veggie bacon rocks.

SL: Really? Bacon, man …

JS: It’s the holy grail, taste-wise, right?

SL: There’s a thought it could be more psychological than biological.

JS: Salt and fat.

SL: And a high concentration of nutrients that you’d need to survive in the wilderness. But also, there’s the happy memory of smelling it cooking on a weekend morning, not something the scientists discount. These are learned experiences.

JS: But a favorite food can become a food you can’t deal with if you eat it right before your stomach flu.

SL: Right. It just takes one time. Except for with my husband. He had eaten a pastrami sandwich earlier in the day, then drank a lot and threw up. And his reaction was, “Oh yeah, that was a good pastrami sandwich.” As it was coming up, this is what was going through his head!

JS: Not a very picky eater.

SL: He’s such a freak! He just doesn’t get turned off to foods easily. Although he does have his bugaboos, like bologna (maybe because he didn’t grow up with it) and cheese with apples. But anyway, the aspect of choice …

JS: Like being able to say, “I can’t eat that because the dietary laws of my religion forbid it,” which generally gets some level of respect.

SL: But then there are the foodies! And that seems to be a socially sanctioned way to be a picky eater. “Oh, I would never eat that!”

JS: “I would never drink that wine! That year was horrible!”

SL: Exactly! Or, “I don’t eat Wonder Bread because it’s full of preservatives!” Foodies can certainly be moralistic, in their own way, about what they will and will not eat. But it’s annoying when they’re like that.

JS: Because their picky preferences are better than yours.

SL: It’s obnoxious.

JS: Are there some foods you don’t regret being picky about?

SL: Well, there are some foods I still don’t eat, and I’m fine with that. Bananas and raisins are right up there, and I wrote a piece for the Washington Post detailing the reasons why I’m OK not liking bananas. They’re trying to kill me in various ways — they’ve got radiation in them —

JS: We can’t grow them locally.

SL: Due to their lack of genetic diversity, they’re going to doe out anyway, so it’s probably better that I never liked them. They used to come with tarantulas in them, back in the day.

JS: That’s extra protein!

SL: So, I could list a bunch of foods that I still don’t like but without regret. Braised meats? I just don’t like them. People go on and on about how great they are, but to me it’s a big mass of everything-tastes-the-same with none of it highly flavored enough for me. WIth stews I have the same kind of issue. I think I don’t regret not liking these kinds of food now because I recognize how far I’ve come. I like so many more things than I used to, and I can get by without it impacting my health or my social life. And, when faced with them at somebody’s house, I will eat something that has bananas or whatever in it. I’ve learned how to deal with it. But I won’t choose to have it myself at home.

JS: You won’t seek it out.

SL: But I am bringing some of these foods into my home, because I don’t want to prejudice my son against them. He likes bananas, sometimes, but often they’ll end up wasted. He’ll go through a phase where he wants them, and then another where he doesn’t want them. His interest level is at the point where I can buy two bananas at a time. I have had friends ask me, “Are you going to not feed him raisins?” Of course I’m going to give him raisins. I can touch the things!

JS: “Are you going to raise the child picky?”

SL: Right! So far, the kid likes okra, so I think we’re OK. But everything on the list I give in the book of foods I still don’t like, I have absolutely no problem not liking them, because it just doesn’t impact my life. There are just a few things out there I wish I liked more, because it would vary our diet more. For example, I don’t love green beans. I toss them with pesto sometimes, but I have just not found a way to make them where I love them. I don’t love peas either, except when Evvia does them in the summertime — huge English peas that come cold dressed with feta and scallions and dill (which I normally don’t like) and olive oil and lemon, and they’re only here for like three weeks. And they’re the best damn peas — that’s the only way I want them. The things I kind of wish I liked that I don’t, I’ve tried, and I’ll try them again, but it doesn’t really bug me.

JS: I wonder how much my regrets for the things I feel like I should be able to like but don’t are connected to the fact that I was not an especially picky eater as a kid (except for not liking meat). I kind of feel like I should like asparagus, but I don’t. It’s been so long since I’ve eaten it that I can’t even remember whether I can smell the funny asparagus metabolite in my pee.

SL: I didn’t like asparagus, and then I wanted to like it and found a recipe that worked, roasting it and dressing it with a vinaigrette and goat cheese. But then we ate a lot of it, and it was really good, and after a while I was noticing that I only ate the tips, not the woody, stringy bits.

JS: And that it still tasted like asparagus.

SL: Yeah. In the end, I tried it.

JS: For me, olives are another challenging food. I’m the only one in my household who doesn’t like them at all. So we may order a pizza with olives to share, but I’m going to pick all the olives off of mine and give them to whoever is nicest to me.

SL: How do you feel about the pizza once you’ve picked them off? Can you actually eat the pizza then?

JS: If I’m hungry enough, I can. I guess it depends. The black olive penetration on pizza is not as extreme as biting into a whole olive.

SL: No. I think the kind of olives they use for pizza are …

JS: Sort of defanged?

SL: Yeah. They’re just not as bitter as the whole olives you find.

JS: Are there foods you’ve grown to like where you still feel some residual pickiness? It sounds like asparagus may be one.

SL: Sweet potatoes and squash are two others I’m still on the fence about. I have to be very careful about how I make them. Lentils — maybe legumes more generally — are foods I don’t love unconditionally. They have to be prepared a certain way. Broccoli, too! I will only eat broccoli made according to the recipe I give in the book or, failing that, roasted but without the vinaigrette. Just because I like a food does not mean I fully accept every rendition of it. Speaking from a cook’s perspective, you just can’t disrespect vegetables. I will not eat broccoli steamed, I just don’t think it’s fair.

JS: Fair enough.

SL: I’m still pretty picky about how I like even the foods that I like.

JS: OK, death is not an option: a dish with a flavor you’re picky about and a good texture, or a dish with a texture you’re picky about and a good flavor?

SL: That’s so hard.

JS: You really want death on the table?

SL: It depends … How bad is the flavor? How good is the flavor?

JS: So, if the good is good enough, you might be able to deal with the challenging part?

SL: I think texture really gets me more. For example, I don’t have a problem with the flavor of flan or panna cotta. Very good flavors. Mango I’ve had, and the flavor is good, but it’s so gelatinous and slimy.

JS: To your palate, it’s wrong.

SL: Yeah. It just gets the gag reflex going for me more. But thinking about it now, I probably wouldn’t do bad flavor/good texture.

JS: So flavor might have a slight edge?

SL: Yeah. I’m thinking about stew: for me, bad all around. Everything is mushy and everything is one flavor, and it’s just very un-fun for me. But then there’s something like bananas, where my problem probably started as a texture issue, but because I disliked the texture so much, I started to associate the smell and the flavor with that texture, and now I don’t like anything banana flavored. I don’t like banana bread. I’ll eat it, but I don’t like it.

JS: And banana flavored cocktails would be right out.

SL: Auugh! Anything that’s a banana flavored cocktail is usually creamy too, and I have a problem with creamy cocktails. I used to be able to do the creamy cocktail in my youth, but now I think there’s something very wrong with them. Unless it’s got coffee.

JS: Did pickiness make culinary school harder?

SL: Yeah, it probably did. I noticed I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to eat certain things. If you’re picky, you do have to really steel yourself to touch certain things that you might not want to touch, like fish. In general, I don’t like handling raw chicken, although I love to eat cooked chicken. I don’t mind handling red meats at all. There’s more blood to it — chicken, by comparison, is more pale and dead looking. So yeah, being picky probably made culinary school more challenging, but I was so into food by that point that it overrode some of it. I knew I would have to eat stuff like veal, stuff that would be difficult for me, and that it would be embarrassing if I didn’t, because the chefs told us we would have to taste everything. I was totally scared about that. But, the fact that it was probably harder for me than it was for someone who was an unabashed lover of all foods probably made it more of a moral victory. Just like becoming a foodie in the face of pickiness, I knew I had to work harder at it. I wasn’t born that way, I had to earn my stripes by getting over a lot of hurdles.

JS: It was a bigger deal because you overcame more adversity to get there.

SL: I think it meant more to me personally.

JS: Did you find that some of the stuff you learned in culinary school gave you more tools to deal with your own pickiness?

SL: Oh, yeah, because it just taught me better methods of cooking things that maybe I didn’t yet know. And, it really made me fearless about adding salt. Roberta Dowling was the director of the school, and nothing was ever salty enough for her. I started calling her the salt-vampire. There was a character on —

JS: Star Trek! I know that one!

SL: For every dish she tasted, she’d say, “Needs more salt,” even if we added all the salt the recipe called for. She tried to get us to recognize that the recipe was just a guideline. And salt really does do a lot for food. People who are not so confident in the kitchen get infuriated by “salt to taste,” but it really is all about your personal taste. What’s going on inside your mouth is so different from what may be going on in someone else’s, which means only you can determine whether it’s enough salt.

JS: Does pickiness look different when you’re on the parental side of the transaction.

SL: Yes. It’s so frustrating! It’s so, “Oh my God, don’t be like me!” I know my mom was like, “Whatever. You guys were picky. I wasn’t worried about it.” The doctor was like, “Give ’em vitamins.” I do think that writing the book, especially the chapter on children, relaxed me. On the other hand, I feel the same way a lot of other picky eaters who are parents feel: I’m just a little bit more conditioned to understand what they’re going through and not push it. But I have to be careful, because sometimes you can still fall into “No, no, no! I know you think you don’t like it now, but really, just try it and you’ll like it.” I have to remember that it’s him and what tastes good to him and what he wants to do. Later on in life, if he changes his mind about whatever it is he doesn’t like this week, great. This week he told me he didn’t like grilled cheese. My response was, “You’re no son of mine! How does a person not like grilled cheese? It was always there for me.”

JS: I think the right answer to, “I don’t like grilled cheese, Mom,” is “More for me!”

SL: Exactly! But yeah, it’s a very different perspective on pickiness. But again, I’m probably more conditioned to be understanding about it than a non-picky parent who gets a picky child might be. They just don’t even know what it’s like.

JS: It’s an interesting thing as they get older. Until this school year, I was the school lunch packer of the house for both of my kids, and I’d get the complaints along the lines of, “Why do you pack us stuff we don’t like?” Of course, I’d say, “OK, tell me what you would like,” but then within a few months they’d be sick of that. This year, I’m still packing my older kid’s linch, since she has to get out the door early to catch a bus, but my 11-year-old has been making her own lunches, and I catch her making these sandwiches that two years ago she would have claimed she didn’t like any components of them at all. The other day, she made a sandwich on home-baked whole wheat bread with a honey-mustard marinate she dug out of the back of the fridge, and smoked gouda, and arugula. I said, “I didn’t know you liked those things.” She said, “Me neither, but they were here, and I tried them, and they were good.” Another day, she made a sandwich with some homemade lime curd, and the parent in the vicinity said, “What about some more protein on that?” so she put some peanut butter on that sandwich and later reported that it tasted kind of Thai.

SL: Of course it did!

JS: I’ll take their word for what they like (or don’t like) this week, but that’s not going to stop me from eating other stuff in front of them, and if it smells or looks good enough to them and they say, “Can I try some of that?” maybe I’ll be nice and I’ll share.

SL: That’s the way to do it, no pressure but you keep offering the stuff, exposing them to it but not getting hurt feelings if they don’t like it.

JS: And ultimately, who cares if the kid ends up liking it? If it’s less hassle for me, one less fight? I have enough fights. I don’t need more fights.

SL: You don’t really need the bragging rights, either. “Oh, my kid is so rarefied!” Who cares?

Scientific knowledge, societal judgment, and the picky eater: Interview with Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic (part 2).

We continue my interview with Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic, author of Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate, conducted earlier this month over lunch at Evvia in Palo Alto. (Here is part 1 of the interview.)

In this segment of the interview, we ponder the kind of power picky eaters find in the scientific research on pickiness, the different ways people get judgmental about what someone else is eating, and the curious fact that scientists who research picky eating seem not to be picky eaters themselves. Also, we cast aspersions on lima beans and kale.

Janet D. Stemwedel: Are there some aspects of pickiness that you’d like to see the scientists research that they don’t seem to be researching yet?

Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic: There was the question of whether there are sex differences in pickiness, which it seems like maybe they’re looking into more now. Also, and this is because of where I am right now, I’d really like to see them look into the impact of having early examples of well-prepared food, because I have a hunch this might be pretty important. I’m pretty sure there’s no silver bullet, whether you’re breast-fed or formula-fed or whatever. It can make parents feel really bad when they get a long list of things to do to help your kid not be picky, and they do everything on the list, and the kid still ends up picky. But I’d like to see more of the research suggesting that it’s not just early exposure to food but early exposure to good food. I’m also intrigued by the research suggesting that pickiness is not a choice but rather a part of your biology. Lots of my friends who are gay have likened it to coming out of the closet and accepting that who you are is not a choice. I’d like to see more pickiness research here, but maybe it’s not so much about the science as the sociology of finding acceptance as a picky eater. Also, I’m not sure the extent to which scientists are taking the cultural aspects into account when they study pickiness — you figure they must. I am sick of people throwing the French back at me, saying, there’s this book written by the mother who raised her kids in France, and her kids were not picky, so, generally, kids in France are not picky. And I’m thinking, you know, I’m willing to bet that there are picky kids in France, but they just don’t talk about it. Scientifically speaking, there’s a high probability that there are picky eaters there.

JS: Right, and their parents probably just have access to enough good wine to not be as bothered by it.

SL: Or maybe their stance is just generally not to be bothered by it. Jacques Pepin said to me, “We just didn’t talk about it.” His daughter liked some things and disliked others, and he said, “You know, when she decided she liked Brussels sprouts, we didn’t get down on the floor to praise God; we just didn’t talk about it either way.” It doesn’t become a thing in the family. Parents today are so educated about food and nutrition, but it can have bad effects as well as good effects.

JS: We have the knowledge, but we don’t always know what to do with it.

SL: I’m hoping that scientists will be able to take all that they’re learning about the different facets of pickiness and put that knowledge together to develop ways to help people. People have asked me whether hypnosis works. I don’t know, and the scientists I asked didn’t know either. But there are people looking for help, and I hope that what the scientists are learning can make that help more accessible.

JS: Something occurred to me as I was reading what you wrote about the various aspects of why people like or don’t like certain flavors or different textures. I know someone who studies drugs of abuse. During the period of time just after my tenure dossier when in, I detoxed from caffeine, but I kept drinking decaffeinated coffee, because I love the taste of coffee. But, this researcher told me, “No, you don’t. You think you do, but the research we have shows that coffee is objectively aversive.” So you look at the animal studies and the research on how humans get in there and get themselves to like coffee, and all the indications are that we’re biologically predisposed not to like it.

SL: We’re not supposed to like it.

JS: But we can get this neurochemical payoff if we can get past that aversion. And I’m thinking, why on earth aren’t leafy greens doing that for us? How awesome would that be?

SL: They don’t get us high. They don’t give us the stimulant boost of caffeine. I think what your researcher friend is saying is that the benefit of caffeine is enough that it’s worth it to learn how to handle the bitterness to get the alertness. I started out with really sweet coffee drinks, with General Foods International coffees, then moved on to Starbucks drinks. I can finally drink black coffee. (I usually put milk in it, but that’s more for my stomach.) I can actually appreciate good coffees, like the ones from Hawaii. But, it’s because I worked at it — just like I worked at liking some of the foods I’ve disliked. I wanted to like it because the payoff was good. With greens, the only payoff is that they’re good for you. I reached a certain age where that was a payoff I wanted. I wanted to like Brussels sprouts because the idea of actually healthful foods became appealing to me. But there are plenty of people I know who are picky eaters who couldn’t care less about that.

JS: So, if there were more reasons apparent within our lifestyle to like leafy greens and their nutritional payoff, we’d work harder when we were in junior high and high school and college to like them? Maybe as hard as we do to become coffee drinkers?

SL: Sure! I’m trying very hard to like kale.

JS: Me too! I feel bad that I don’t like it.

SL: I know, right?

JS: I feel like I should — like a good vegetarian should like kale.

SL: Well, everyone’s trying to like it, and I’ve found some ways of liking it. But, what’s the payoff for kale? Obviously, it’s very good for you, and it’s supposed to have some specific benefits like being really good for your complexion, and cleaning out your liver. Have another glass of wine? OK, if you eat your kale. But again, “good for you” is a weird kind of payoff.

JS: It’s a payoff you have to wait for.

SL: And one you’re not necessarily always going to see. I’ve been told that eating lots of salmon also has health benefits, but I just don’t like salmon enough to eat enough of it to see those benefits.

JS: Heh. That reminds me of the stories I heard from our pediatrician that you’ve probably heard from yours, that if you feed your baby too much strained carrot, the baby might turn orange and you shouldn’t be alarmed. And of course, I was determined to sit down and feed my child enough carrots that weekend to see if I could make that happen.

SL: I’ve never seen that happen. Does it really happen?

JS: Apparently with some kids it does. I tried with mine and could not achieve the effect.

[At this point we got a little sidetracked as I offered Stephanie some of my Gigantes (baked organic Gigante beans with tomatoes, leeks, and herbed feta). I had ordered them with some trepidation because someone on Yelp had described this as a lima bean dish, and I … am not a fan of lima beans. The beans turned out to be a broad bean that bore no resemblance to the smaller, starchy lima beans of my youthful recollection.]

SL: I’ve never actually seen those lima beans fresh, just in bags in the frozen section.

JS: And assuming they still taste like we remember them, who would get them?

SL: Well, my husband is the kind of person who will eat anything, so he might. But you can also take limas and puree them with lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil and make a white bean spread. If I had to eat limas, that’s what I’d do with them. Maybe add a little mint. But I wouldn’t just eat them out of the bag, not even with butter.

JS: They’re not right.

SL: No.

JS: With so many different kinds of beans, why would you eat that one?

SL: There’s a reason why Alexander, of the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, had lima beans as his hated food. But, there are scientists at Monell working on flavors and acceptance of food — trying, among other things, to work out ways to make the drug cocktails less yucky for pediatric AIDS patients. They’re working on “bitter blockers” for that. (Maybe that could help with lima beans, too.) Anyway, getting Americans to eat more healthy foods …

JS: There’s probably some pill we could take for that, right?

SL: Hey, I thought we could do that with vitamins. Then I heard Michael Pollan saying, basically vitamins are pointless. (I still take them.) It’s tricky, because lots of people eat primarily for pleasure, not for health. I’m not sure why we have to see the two as being in opposition to each other; I enjoy food so much now that I find pleasure in eating foods that are good for me. But there are also plenty of people who just see food as fuel, and don’t find it any more interesting or worthy of discussion than that.

JS: At that point, why not just stock up on the nutrition bars and never do dishes again?

SL: When Anderson Cooper came out as a picky eater on his talk show, he said, “I would rather just drink my meals. I would rather have a shake.” His reaction to food was at the level where he wasn’t interested in anything more than that, at all. He’d rather go for convenience.

JS: That seems OK to me. That’s not how I am, or how the people I live with (and cook for) are, which means I can’t just blend it for meals, but that’s how it goes.

SL: For people who are like that, and know that they’re like that, if drinking meals is what works for them, that’s great. Personally, I wouldn’t want to be that way, but then again, I say that not really knowing what it’s like to be them instead of me.

JS: Do you think that interest in the causes of pickiness is driven by the amount of judgment people attach to picky eaters?

SL: Certainly, that’s my interest in it. I don’t think that’s necessarily why the scientific community is interested in it — I mean, I don’t think it bothers them very much, except in terms of understanding the psychological effects that are connected to pickiness. But yes, let’s talk about how food is the subject of judgment in general — especially among people in the Bay Area, among foodies.

JS: “Are you really going to eat that?! Do you know where that’s from?”

SL: Right, or “I won’t eat anything that wasn’t grown or raised within a 90 mile radius.” We have so many levels at which we judge what someone else is eating. My personal motivation for writing this book was to shed light on this topic because of the judgment that I saw picky eaters experience. For a while, I wouldn’t even admit my past as a picky eater. I had become a foodie and I was out here reinventing myself, but I kept my mouth shut about things I didn’t like until other people around me were admitting that they went through a picky stage of their own. Whenever I’ve written about pickiness online, the comments end up having a lot of people sharing their own stories. It seems like everyone can relate to it: “This is what I don’t like, and here’s why …” or, “I never thought I’d find anyone else who didn’t like this food for the same reason I don’t like it.” I’ve found that people can bond just as much over hating foods as they do over liking them. Let’s face it, food is often about community, so discussions of things we hate and things we love can be equally interesting to people. Even if you have the Pollyannas who say, “Who really wants to talk about something as unpleasant as what we don’t like?” guess what? We all dislike things.

JS: How many of the scientists who do research on the different aspects that contribute to pickiness outed themselves as picky eaters to you? Or do you think the scientists who study this stuff seem to be less picky than the rest of us?

SL: None of them really admitted to me that they were picky eaters. And I would ask them point blank if they were. One of the scientists working on the Duke study, Nancy Zucker, told me, “No. I ate everything as a kid, and I still do.” And, she told me her mom did some really weird things with food because her job was to sample products. The other scientist I spoke to on the Duke study admitted to not really liking tomatoes, but that was the extent of her pickiness. I got the sense from Dr. Dani Reed at Monell that she loves food and loves to cook. There were some foods, like organ meats, that she hadn’t quite accepted but that her friends were trying to get her to like. But, not a whole lot of people in this scientific community admitted to me that they were picky. I’m now thinking through everyone I interviewed, and I don’t recall any of them expressing food issues.

JS: I wonder if that’s at all connected with the research — whether doing research in this area is a way to make yourself less picky, or whether people who are picky are not especially drawn to this area of research.

SL: A lot of them would admit to having family members or friends who were picky. So then you wonder if they might have been drawn to the research because of this need to understand someone in their life.

JS: Maybe in the same way that losing a family member to leukemia could draw you to a career in oncology, having a family member who ruined family dinners by not eating what was on the plate draws you to this?

SL: Quite possibly. By and large, the scientists I spoke to about pickiness were so non-judgmental, probably because they’ve been studying it in various forms for various reasons. The rest of us are just now talking more about it and starting to notice the research that’s been amassed (on children, or breast feeding, or “inter-uterine feeding” and what they’re “tasting” in the womb). Since Monell is the center for research on taste and smell, they are used to journalists asking them about picky eaters. They’re also used to being misquoted and having the journalists’ accounts of the science come out wrong. (For example, they hate the word “supertaster,” which the media loves.) I got the impression that they were very non-judmental about pickiness, but none of them really described themselves as picky to me — and I asked.

JS: Maybe the picky eaters who are scientists go into some other field.

SL: Maybe. Maybe they don’t want to be involved with the food anymore.

JS: “Get it away from me! Get it away from me!”

SL: Seriously! “I lived it; I don’t need to study it!”

JS: Do you think having a scientific story to tell about pickiness makes it easier for picky eaters to push back against the societal judgment?

SL: Oh yeah. Lots of interviewers I’ve spoken to have wanted to tout this book as the science of picky eating — and let’s face it, it’s not all about the science — but people want to latch onto the scientific story because, for the lay person, when science hands down a judgment, you kind of just accept it. This is how I felt — you can’t argue with science. Science is saying, this is why I am who I am. Having scientific facts about pickiness gives you the back-up of a big-brained community, we can explain at least part of why you’re the way you are, and it’s OK. When parents can be given scientific explanations for why their kids are the way they are —

JS: And that the kid’s not just messing with you.

SL: Right! And that it’s not your fault. It’s not that you did something wrong to your kid that made your kid a picky eater. We’re really talking about two communities of picky eating, the parents of kids who are picky, and the adults who are picky eaters, and both those communities are looking for science because it’s as solid a thing as they can find to help them get through it.

JS: But here, we loop back to what you were saying earlier, as you were discussing how there’s potentially a genetic basis for pickiness, and how this kind of finding is almost analogous to finding a biological basis for sexual orientation. In both cases, you could draw the conclusion that it isn’t a choice but who you are.

SL: Exactly.

JS: But when I hear that, I’m always thinking to myself, but what if it were a choice? Why would that make us any more ready to say it’s a bad thing? Why should a biological basis be required for us to accept it? Do you think picky eaters need to have some scientific justification, or should society just be more accepting of people’s individual likes and dislike around food?

SL: Well, a psychologist would say, the first thing a picky eaters needs to do is accept that that’s who she is. Whatever the reason, whether their biology or their life history, this is who they are. The next thing is how does this impact you, and do you want to change it? If it’s something you want to change, you can then deal with it in steps. Why do we need to know that it’s not a choice? Because you get judged more for your choices. Let’s face it, you also get judged for who you are, but you get judged far more if you make what is assumed to be a choice to dislike certain foods. Then it’s like, “Why would you make that choice?” But there might also be a bully-population thing going on. There seem to be more people who like food of various kinds than who dislike them; why are they the ones who get to be right?

JS: Good question!

SL: And then there are discussions about evolution, where maybe not liking a particular food could be viewed as a weakness (because in an environment where that’s what there was to eat, you’d be out of luck). Sometimes it seems like our culture treats the not-picky eaters as fitter (evolutionarily) than the picky eaters. Of course, those who like and eat everything indiscriminately are more likely to eat something who kills them, so maybe the picky eaters will be the ultimate survivors. But definitely, the scientific story does feel like it helps fend off some of the societal criticism. Vegetarians and vegans already have some cover for their eating preferences. They have reasons they can give about ethics or environmental impacts. The scientific information can give picky eaters reasons to push back with that stronger than just individual preferences. For some reason, “I just don’t like it” isn’t treated like a good reason not to eat something.

Can science help the picky eater? Interview with Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic (part 1).

This summer, I reviewed Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate by Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic. This month, with the approach of the holiday season (prime time for picky eaters to sit with non-picky eaters at meal time), Stephanie and I sat down for lunch at Evvia in Palo Alto to talk about pickiness while sampling foods that had previously been in our “no go” categories. (For me, this included dolmathes, for Stephanie, grilled octopus.)

In this segment of the interview, we discuss some of what scientists think they know about pickiness and why it matters. We also dip our tasting spoons into the steaming cauldron of early upbringing and cultural influences on the foods we like or don’t like, and chew on the idea that a kid’s pickiness can be developmentally appropriate.

Janet D. Stemwedel: The first question I have is about the expectations you had when you set out on this project, researching the book, about what you were going to learn about the science — whether you started out thinking science probably had a nice, neat explanation for why people are picky eaters, of whether you started out with the assumption that it was going to be a big old complicated thing?

Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic: I did not think science had the big answer, honestly. I thought science could answer the supertaster question for me personally, but that was the only answer I expected to get. In the meantime, I knew that I could ask scientists and psychologists and psychiatrists questions along with that. But I knew from what I was aware of already, the articles out there — I mean, they’re usually pop-culture articles, and they don’t always tell the science correctly or fully — I knew that science had some answers. I knew that there were so many avenues that could be explored, I really didn’t expect there to be a full answer. What I found, though, were more possibilities, like “this could be a possible reason — being a supertaster could be a reason, but it’s not the only reason.” Being exposed via breast milk — which I was not; I was a formula-fed baby — is maybe linked to being less picky, so maybe being formula-fed contributed to my pickiness. You’re never going to get an answer with 100% agreement behind it, because it’s still evolving. And science, as evidenced by Duke doing this study, for the adults at least, they don’t know what’s causing it, they just know that there are a lot of contributing factors. And, when they’re looking to treat it, it’s more like, “Well, let’s get really in-depth into what the possibilities might be that contribute to it, and let’s try to fix them” on sometimes just the psychological level.

JS: It’s an interesting kind of thing that something that goes along with studying a phenomenon like being a picky eater is the scientists saying, “And we’re going to fix it!” Like it’s something that needs to be fixed rather than just part of normal human variation. Why problematize it?

SL: Well, Dr. Nancy Zucker at Duke said what they worry about — less in my case, personally; more other people’s cases — they’re finding, if you’re a child, your development could be affected if you have what they call severe food refusal. They left the adults alone for a while, but now they’re discovering that maybe adults’ health and social lives are severely impaired by this problem, because they’re not eating the things maybe they’re supposed to be eating that can extend their lives or make them healthier, or if they don’t want to go out to dinner with friends and family, if they don’t want to be around friends, that’s a problem. So, that’s why they want to “fix” it, or at least help.

JS: So, it’s not necessarily, “We will find the picky eaters. They will all be cured. It will be a happy utopia.”

SL: I think the picky eaters have to want the help to be “cured”. While I got over it, I don’t believe that there’s going to be a cure. It’s very individualized. You really have to want to get over it, and to be fair to picky eaters who have it worse than I do, I don’t mean to say that all picky eaters want to live that way. But you have to have a very strong impetus to push you to do it. It’s a really scary thing. A lot of picky eaters will tell you it’s not a won’t, it’s a can’t. They can’t get over it.

JS: You interacted with lots of scientists who study many different aspects of pickiness in lots of different ways. You discovered that it’s complicated. Is your sense that the scientists feel like they may be getting near a place where things start seeming less complicated, where things start falling into place? Or was your sense, talking to them, that every corner they turned, they found a new way that it’s more complicated?

SL: I think the second. I think that as they gather information, especially about the adult picky eaters — because the adults are more forthcoming about what they don’t like and why or what they remember; you don’t necessarily reason with kids when you’re trying to treat them, you just treat them — so I think that they’re finding more nuances. It’s not just about the individual foods at all. It’s the reasons, if they can figure them out. So I think, when I spoke to scientists about my own personal experience and how I feel like I got past it, for some of them that was new information. To hear about my reactions to foods, or how I went to culinary school, some of it was like, “Oh, that makes sense. You learned how to cook and that demystified the food. That makes sense, on a psychological level, that that could have helped you.” But I think it’s still such a mystery because many people struggle with how to explain a dislike. You have to be pretty introspective to do it, and you may just be unable to explain it. “I don’t know why I don’t like it; I just don’t like it. I don’t know if it’s the texture or the flavor or what.” Some people haven’t thought very hard about it. They just know they don’t like it. I’m not sure it’s that complicated of a thing, except that humans are so complicated, and pickiness is more of an internal than an external issue. That makes it pretty complex.

JS: So scientists aren’t even expecting that it’s going to end up shaking out to be like three main ways to be picky.

SL: You know, I don’t know, because when I asked Dr. Zucker, who was heading up the Duke study, what they hoped to achieve, she was very careful to say that they were in the beginning stages of just assessing information with this online survey. I will say, they were surprised at the response. I’m remembering she said in a radio interview we were both part of that she expected around 3,000 people to fill out this form, and they got like 30,000. So I think the breadth of that response, what they’re learning about how many people out there might classify themselves as picky, as having food issues — and again, they were just amassing the information, they hadn’t yet begun to process it. Maybe they’ve started that now. Because I will say, also in that same interview, I always asked the question, is there a difference between men and women. That could have been something, potentially, I talked about in the book. Although I didn’t write about it, I personally found that of the people I’ve met who are former picky eaters, who have gotten past it, more are women than men. Men I’ve met who are picky eaters seem to just be OK with their state. They deal with it and they don’t really need to change it. We could go into philosophical reasons about women being social, or feeling judged, to explain why they might be more likely to try to get past it. But anyway, when I asked if there’s a difference between men and women, [I found out] there are studies with kids found that males may be more likely to reject a new idea than females. But Dr. Zucker did say in this one interview that they are starting to find out that there might be a difference between the sexes in pickiness itself. I wanted to talk to her about it more, but I couldn’t on the radio. Anyway, some interesting correlations are emerging.

JS: But then untangling what’s going on with those, whether it’s genes or environment, figuring out if there’s a cultural component to it …

SL: Whether there’s a cultural component is something I’ve been asked about a lot in interviews. It was something I did not feel equipped to cover, because it was just so big. I could have taken on the history of picky eating — it was something my editor wanted me to do — but I wasn’t even sure how to begin tracking the history of it. On the cultural side of it, you get a lot of people saying, “Well, in India babies eat spicy foods.” Yeah, they do; that’s what’s there, what they’re used to. That’s their normal. But I also had someone tell me about being an American in North Korea, working (yes, it can be done). They went out to lunch with their Korean counterparts, and the menu had a western side and a Korean side. The western side was all pastas, pizzas, whatever, and the Koreans at the lunch thought that was absolutely disgusting food. So, it’s all about what you’re used to. It’s not that Americans are predisposed to be picky because we live in this huge country of largesse. People in different countries are going to have different reactions to different kinds of food. What might be gross to someone who’s never had Japanese food before almost certainly has an American counterpart that someone in Japan would find gross. It’s a huge topic that I couldn’t even begin to get into.

JS: It makes you wonder. I would not describe my own upbringing as full of lots of different styles of food, or of foods from lots of different cultural traditions. My parents were from the midwest. I was growing up basically in the ’70s and ’80s, and that was not necessarily a time of astounding creativity among home chefs.

SL: Not just in the midwest, it wasn’t anywhere. I’m from Minnesota, and I grew up the same time you did. It was a lot of frozen vegetables for me. Badly prepared.

JS: With the hell boiled right out of them.

SL: Right! So there was no way they were going to end up being anything good. Now, I could blame Minnesota for our lack of access to better food, but I’ve talked to a friend of mine who grew up in California —

JS: And it was the same thing?

SL: Yes. She said, “We just didn’t have the same access that we do today.”

JS: Huh!

SL: She’s a former picky eater turned foodie and food writer, and she said it wasn’t until she went to college that she was opened up to more food. Maybe it is all about what your parents are bringing home. My husband grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, and his mom always loved to cook, so she sought out the best recipes and there was more of that emphasis for him; even if they didn’t always have access to non-frozen vegetables, there was an attempt. I grew up on Chinese food and Vietnamese food, because we had a lot of it around, and I loved it, but I didn’t grow up around stuff I love now, like Ethiopian food or Afghan food. In this day and age, even in the midwest, there are more corner grocery stores that are going to have the ingredients, there are more restaurants, there’s more of an emphasis on the food culture than when you and I were growing up.

JS: Maybe that will have an impact on our kids. But, then again …

SL: It’s one thing that might help.

JS: Yeah. I have a kid who, as a two-year-old, cried inconsolably when, after her third helping of garlic broccoli, we ran out (and couldn’t get more, since it was Sunday, and the Thai restaurant down the street that we had gotten it from was closed). We said, “Child, you are not supposed to like broccoli this much!” And before that, when she was a baby, of course, every time my head was turned at the playground, she’d eat a handful of sand, I think just on principle. So, not what I would have called a super-picky child. But now, for her, there’s like a 15 minute window in which she’ll count a banana as ripe.

SL: I don’t blame her!

JS: And beyond that, she says, “It makes me gag.”

SL: Bananas are pernicious!

JS: It’s hard to know how much of this has to do with this is where her palate is right now (and it’s a moving target), and how much of it is, here’s a way to stick it to the parent.

SL: Speaking personally, I was the middle child, so I was always trying to be good. I was not ever trying to piss off my parents or run counter to them. And even my older sister, who was more the rebel, rebelled in other ways. I will say she became a vegetarian for a while, maybe to make a point — she was a teenager — but I also believe it was to avoid certain foods that neither of us liked. Speaking as a kid who grew up picky, I never consciously thought of my pickiness as a way to thwart my parents. I hated fighting with them about it.

JS: Yeah, I’m not even sure this would be a conscious thing. Once they’re thirteen, they don’t even know all the ways they’re trying to fight authority.

SL: Sometimes they’re disagreeing just to disagree.

JS: I think it’s part of demonstrating that you’re an autonomous human being; you have to reject every good idea that comes out of your mother’s mouth.

SL: Which is exactly what they’re doing around eighteen months. This is why it’s normal to see picky eaters at toddler age. It’s developmentally appropriate — they should be picky eaters. It’s the first time they can take control and say “No” and “You can’t put this in my mouth because I can now feed myself.” So yes, I learned that they’re little teenagers when they’re toddlers, with the same kinds of hormonal fluctuations going on.

JS: Well, it’s totally fun to get to do that twice with each child. Development kind of sucks.

SL: Yeah.

Book review: Cooking for Geeks.

Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food
by Jeff Potter
O’Reilly Media, 2010

We have entered the time of year during which finding The Perfect Gift for family members and friends can become something of an obsession. Therefore, in coming days, I’ll be sharing some recommendations.

If you have family members and friends on your gifting list who are interested in science or interested in food (or interested in both science and food), then Cooking for Geeks is a book to give them that will have an impact that lingers for much longer on the palate than your run-of-the-mill book.

Partly this is because Cooking for Geeks is organized more like a manual (with sections on equipment, “inputs”, relevant variables for different cooking methods, etc.) than a linear narrative. Indeed, the book is also an astounding collection of fun things to try, whether with ingredients, cooking methods, equipment, or your own taste buds. There are at least a hundred science fair project ideas lurking within these 432 pages — although good luck to the kid who tries to pry this book away from the grown-ups, who will want to try the potential experiments themselves. Jeff Potter’s clear and engaging descriptions of issues like the chemistry and mechanics of leavening, strategies for adapting the kitchen equipment you have to perform the tasks you want to perform, or ways to avoid foodborne illness are interspersed with his interviews with food geeks of various sorts sharing their expertise, their recipes, and their enthusiasm for digging deeper and learning why things work the way they do. Basically, it’s almost a transcript of what I imagine would be the geekiest dinner party ever, and an invitation to recreate a piece of it in your own kitchen with your own friends.

There is so much good stuff in here that it’s actually a bit overwhelming. Here’s a tasting-menu of some of my favorite features:

  • A hands-on way to compare the levels of gluten in different kinds of flour (page 220).
  • Discussions of different culinary solvents, including the use of alcohol and water to isolate different compounds from the same raw materials in a bitters recipe (page 296), and the use of “fat-washing” alcohols (page 292).
  • An algorithm to optimize your cutting of a cake into not-neccesarily-equal slices in such a way as to satisfy the desires of N people hoping to get a slice of that cake (page 257).
  • An examination of factors relevant to the multiplication of bacteria in our food, shedding some light on what makes the “shelf-stable” items in the pantry less deadly than they might otherwise be — plus an exhortation to remember basic physics when deciding how to safely store foods in the refrigerator (page 162).
  • A discussion of why marshmallows made with methylcellulose melt when they are cooled rather than when they are heated (pages 316-317), including a recipe so you can try this at home.
  • A graph (page 159) comparing cooking methods by rate of heat transfer (plotting minutes to raise the center of uniform pieces of tofu 54 oC versus the temperature of the cooking environment). There’s something about a good graph that is deeply satisfying.
  • An examination why it matters what the bowl is made of when you’re whisking egg whites in it (page 253), as well as recipes for French Meringue and Italian Meringue which discuss why a slight difference in method can lead to a pronounced difference in texture (page 255).
  • In the eternal batter between weight and volume, a persuasive empirical case for measuring ingredients by weight (page 62).
  • Lots of discussion of the five primary tastes (bitter, sour, umami, sweet, and salty), including charts with suggestions on what to add to a dish to increase each of them — and another chart with suggestions for how to counteract a primary taste with which you’ve gone too far (page 115).
  • A discussion of the basis vectors for wine-food pairings and how to isolate them empirically (using lemon juice, sugar water, tea, and vodka) to taste your dish and figure out what kind of wine will go well with it. (page 89)
  • The recipes for crepes (pages 68-69), pumpkin cake (page 249), and chocolate panna cotta that uses agar rather than gelatin (page 311).
  • Suggestions for compounds you can play with (including lactisole, miraculin, and the humble Peppermint Lifesaver) that will mess with your taste receptors in interesting ways (pages 109-110).

A lovely feature of this book is that it makes no assumptions about the reader’s level of comfort or competence in the kitchen. Rather, it presents food and cooking as a realm where the newbie can learn some important principles (that also happen to be cool) and where the experienced cook can learn even more. Maybe the experienced cook has a larger store of “common wisdom,” but Potter puts lots of that common wisdom to empirical test to see just how wise it is. Moreover, the newbie may be in a better position to violate recipes and use methods “the wrong way” to discover what happens when you do.

As well, Cooking for Geeks makes no assumptions about just what kind of geek the reader might be. There is certainly a lot of real chemistry, physics, and engineering in this book (not to mention a healthy dose of biology), but all of it is presented in an accessible way, inviting the reader who is not (for example) a chemistry geek to use food as a reason to start taking chemistry more seriously.

Cooking for Geeks would make a fabulous gift for a curious person who’s interested in food or cooking. It pairs nicely with Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate and a quad-ruled notebook.

Science kits … for girls.

Via a tweet from Ed Yong, I discovered this weekend (not that I couldn’t have guessed) that purveyors of science kits for kids are still gendering the heck out of them. That is to say, there are science kits, and there are science kits for girls.

For all I know, putting science kits in pink boxes is an excellent strategy to get them to fly off the shelves, but I am not convinced that it is a good strategy when it comes to getting girls interested in science. Indeed, I worry that whatever interest in science kits like these might cultivate might come with baggage that could actually make it harder for girls (and the women they become) to pursue scientific education and careers.

I’ll try to spell out the shape of these worries in my next post. In this post, I offer for your consideration, three “science” kits targeted at girls that appeared in toy catalogues that crossed my desk five years ago. Then, I’ll take a quick look at this year’s offerings.

Archimedes got scientific insight from a bathtub, but he wasn't required to wear eye-makeup to do it.

Spa Science

The kit offers itself as a way “to cultivate a girl’s interest in science” through the making of “beauty products like an oatmeal mask, rose bath balm, and aromatherapy oils”. Besides the “natural and organic materials” to concoct said products, the kit includes “a booklet that explores how scents affect moods and memories.”

Don’t get me wrong — there is science worth discussing in this neighborhood.

But, the packaging here strikes me as selling the need for beauty product more emphatically than any underlying scientific explanations of how they work. Does a ten-year-old need an oatmeal mask? (If so, why only ten-year-old girls? Do not ten-year-old boys have pores and sebaceous glands?) Also, I’m nervous that the exploration of scents and “aromatherapy” may be setting kids up as easy marks for health food grocers and metaphysical bookstores who will sell them all manner of high-priced, over-hyped, essential-oil-containing stuff.

Maybe the Barbie-licious artwork is intended to convey that even very “girly” girls can find some element of science that is important to their concerns, but it seems also to convey that being overtly feminine is a concern that all girls have (or ought to have) — and, that such “girly” girls couldn’t possibly take an interest in science except as a way to cultivate their femininity.

Our exposed shoulders tell you that you can do these activities without being a tomboy!


Aimed at a slightly younger audience (of “young ladies-in-training”) than the last kit, this one promises to teach girls “the chemistry behind” perfumes. Setting aside my skepticism about how much real engagement with chemistry one is likely to get from a kit like this, notice that the catalogue blurb starts with the claim that “Everyone should have a ‘signature scent’!” (I beg to differ. My ten-year-old’s signature scent is soap, thank you very much.) Does the benefit of teaching a kid a little bit of chemistry outweigh the cost of convincing a little girl that she ought to smell like something other than a young human? Where might this lead?

And where are the boys here? Aren’t they supposed to be grooming boys to want to buy fragrances, too? Here’s a conjecture for the field operatives to explore further: Males are sold fragrances as a way to render females helpless to the males’ sexual magnetism, whereas females are sold fragrances as a way to smell acceptable. Plus, boys just naturally dig science, whereas girls just naturally dig laboring under the weight of gender roles.

Would these products make me feel as pretty without those little tubes and pots?

Creative Cosmetics

Here’s another — substantially pricier kit — aiming to teach a little science through the mixing and application of “customized skin care items”, although again the assumption seems to be that only girls have skin that requires care, or that only girls need to be suckered into caring about science. Cynic that I am, I cannot help but wonder how much of the “important skin care and wellness facts” included with the essential oils, packaging, and instructions is devoted to actual science as opposed to cultivating an unnecessary beauty regimen.

Given that this kit “teaches them to make shampoos and shower gels, makeup, creams and lotions from common household items” — which, presumably, one’s household may already have — what could explain the high price of this kit ($60)? My bet is on the little pots and tubes and squeeze bottles — which is to say, on the part that has nothing at all to do with the quality of the skin care product, and everything to do with making you want to buy it when you see it in the store.
But surely, this kit really is intended to cultivate an interest in science rather than train new generations of consumers, right?

Casting an eye to the recent crop of girls’ science kits, I get the feeling that consumerism is the intended goal.

We see thirteen distinct kits (collect them all!), four of which are centered on growing crystals. (To be fair, one of these is advertised as combining the experiments of two of the other three.) Three of the kits are focused on perfumes, although each involves different activities (making incense, or cards and “dazzling cloth hangings,” or scented gel crystals and perfumed slime). There is a “Luxury Soap Lab” kit as well as a “Beauty Spa Lab” kit with which you can make … fancy soaps. I’m guessing that these kits are separate not to keep the retail prices down, but to encourage kids (or the people purchasing gifts for them) to buy more of them.

Plus, the description of the “Beauty Spa Lab” notes that you can make “scrub soaps for dad, or exfoliating soaps for mum.” Which is to say, the gendering is pretty thoroughgoing here.

Perhaps it’s a tiny step in the right direction that one of the girls’ kits is “Beautiful Blob Slime”. Non-Newtonian semi-solids are cool and don’t in themselves cram gendered expectations down a girl’s throat. Still, the assumption is that a girl must be reassured of the beauty of the slime before she’ll play.

Honestly, I can’t think of a better way to make a girl in grade school question whether she’ll have any interest in or aptitude for science than to present her with a “science for girls” kit. The message seems to be, “Look, there’s a bit of science that will interest even you. (And go put on some lipstick!)” Heaven knows, we couldn’t even get girls interested in building Rube Goldberg machines, or launching water-rockets, or studying the growth of plants or the behaviors of animals, or blowing stuff up … except, these are just the sort of things that the girls I know would want to do, even the pretty pink princesses.

Moreover, it seems to me a kid could explore some of this same scientific territory without coughing up $60, or even $25.

As a place to start, check out the American Chemical Society’s kids’ website.

The hands-on activities include nine fun experiments with soap and detergent, three with crystals, six with polymers, and eleven with food, just for starters. These activities can be done with materials you probably already have in the house (or can find easily in a grocery store). And, as an added bonus, none of them are labeled as experiments for girls or experiments for boys. They are experiments for whatever kid (or grown-up) want to do them.

Up next, I’ll explain why I think bundling kids’ science kids with gendered stereotypes is a bad idea both in the short term and in the long run.

Why does Thanksgiving dinner make you sleepy?

Thanksgiving DessertsFor years, you’ve heard the tremendous fatigue experienced after an American Thanksgiving dinner laid at the feet of the turkey — or more precisely, blamed upon the tryptophan in that turkey. Trytophan, apparently, is the go-to amino acid for those who want to get sleepy.

Let me note, before we go on, that for all its association with tryptophan, turkey doesn’t even crack the top 50 in this list of tryptophan-rich foods. (Number one: stellar sea lion kidney.)

In any case, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times, that appeared in time for Thanksgiving 2008, the real story may be more complicated than that:

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