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Inventions rarely ever come all by themselves. You can’t invent a can, if there is no tin, you can’t invent beer without there being vessels to hold it and you can’t invent bread if you don’t have grains. What we might now think of as obvious facts and tools, might have been very innovative or even non-existent years, decades or centuries ago. And, the road to where we are now has been long, with fewer major innovations and more continuous progress over time.
Of course, every so often, major innovations disrupt the world of food and cooking. Canning as well as the more recent microwave were disruptions. However, in most cases, the constant progression of knowledge enables new inventions. And whereas several major inventions such as pasteurization and canning can be attributed to one or a few people, most foods and techniques can’t (who invented bread?).
It is good to take a step back every so often and look back at the past, to understand where we come from. It is what Guy Crosby in his book Cook, Taste, Learn (affiliate link) does very well.
Please note that I received this book for free from Columbia University Press (the publisher of the book) but with no obligation to write about it. The affiliate links in this article are for Bookshop.org, a platform supporting small bookstores. If you order through these links we earn a commission.
Guy Crosby – the science editor
If you live in the US and have been interested in the science of food in your home kitchen for a while, you might well have read articles or books by Guy Crosby before. Guy Crosby is currently (early 2020) the science editor for Milk Street, after being the science editor of America’s Test Kitchen for years (until Christopher Kimball left and started Milk Street). Both these companies aim to teach people how to cook better, using science. For America’s Test Kitchen Crosby co-edited their books Cook’s Science and the Science of Good Cooking. Both of which are full of recipes and explanations as to why they work.
Before that though, he had a 30-year career within the food industry at several food ingredient businesses. After retiring from that career, he started teaching at Harvard and Framingham State University. He has now retired from the latter, but still lectures at Harvard and various other occasions about food and science. Crosby is passionate about food science (especially true, proven science) and that shines through in this latest book.
The history of cooking
The consensus under historians is that cooking is one of the things that makes us human and different from a lot (but not all) of other animals. Cooking increases the nutritional value of our food and this has likely been a real advantage to us in evolutionary history.
It is where Cook, Taste, Learn kicks off the journey through the history of our cooking. There aren’t many details we know about this time, no restaurant menus or photos of food of course. Nevertheless, researchers have managed to gather a lot of insights. For instance, by evaluating the vessels in which people cooked (would they be suitable for frying, or just boiling, or even just for storage?). Crosby summarizes this well in short, concise but very informative and entertaining chapters.
My favorite chapters though, are the chapters 3-5 that follow. These chapters cover the era from about 1500 to present. Crosby does a great job in linking major scientific discoveries, which aren’t necessarily directly related to food, to food history. In these chapters, Crosby manages to explain complex topics in a very concise, but easy to understand manner (something I myself am still trying to improve on every day on this blog).
He covers the importance of discovering the Maillard reaction, but also the importance of chirality. Chiral molecules can be best compared to your left & right hand, almost identical but not the same. Two otherwise identical, molecules, but with different chirality can actually taste very different! Also, he discusses the discovery of canning and how food satey issues definitely aren’t new. He shows this using a great example in which a manufacturer changes the size of their cans, without changing the heating process, which likely killed explorers dependent on the canned food.
The last two chapters resonate less with me. This is partly due to my personal preferences for certain topics over others. However, whereas the first several chapters read as well researched articles, it seems some shortcuts were taken in especially chapter 6 on the development of food science (with a possibly slanted view on the importance of Cook’s Illustrated, although as a European, my view is definitely biased as well). The pace of the book also drops and even though it is still a good summary, it is less concise than before. Also, some duplication of sections shows up as well as smaller errors (e.g. despite the fact that the book is published in December of 2019, he mentions legislation being pushed back “all the way” to 2020, which is literally around the corner. Personally, I’m also not a fan of grouping nutrients in good and bad categories. Except for a few exceptions, the distinction tends to be way more nuanced.
I did still learn a lot in these chapters. It is especially fascinating to see how little we really know and how hard research can be within the field of nutrition. It definitely inspired me to write about and learn more on the effect of processing on nutrition.
Story & highlights
The historic journey within the book is well laid out, without forgetting about the food science. Throughout the book, several sections dive deeper into specific scientific concepts such as poaching in oil vs water, the importance of gluten and the colour of meat. These sections have some link with the on-going story, but aren’t crucial for it.
Which is also my only real ‘complaint’ here, that they are placed throughout the book and break the story. Because of placement, the book does lose some of the flow. That said, they are all well marked and really well written interesting pieces of science. I learned several new things while reading them, and added a few new books on my ‘to read’ list!
The book contains a handful of recipes, on average one per chapter. These add a nice personal touch to the book. However, I will not actually be making any of these. This is not the type of book I pick up when I start cooking. Instead, it’s a book I would read on the couch, with a cup of tea, to learn something new.
If you’re interested in the science of food and cooking and its history, Cook, Taste, Learn (affiliate link) is a great book to read. It is by no means all-encompassing, but it doesn’t presume to be so either. It is somewhat slanted to US readers, but non-US readers generally interested in the topic, will find new things to learn as well.
The book is well researched and you can use it as an introduction to the topic for sure. There are a lot of references to further reading within the book, as well as further recommendations on what else to read. It shows the academic mindset behind it: Crosby isn’t under the illusion he knows everything, he provides you the tools you need to do your own learning, which I greatly appreciate!
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Cooking Science Guy, visited Jan-2020, link
Harvard school of public health, visited Jan-2020, link