In Politics of Nature, Bruno Latour describes a hypothetical wine-tasting event that begins in a cellar in Burgundy and ends in a chemistry lab equipped with a gas chromatographer, a tool that is capable of detecting the chemical compounds that are responsible for the taste and aroma of wine. In Latour’s view, the chromatographer is not an unwelcome scientific intrusion that detracts from the experience. To the contrary, combining the cellar with the lab results in a “double tasting” that enables us to detect subtle new differences, making the wine more, not less, nuanced and complex.1
The contributors to The Kitchen as Laboratory would agree wholeheartedly with Latour that science can enrich our culinary experiences. Framed by a useful preface and introduction, this edited volume includes thirty-three chapters, written mostly by food scientists and chefs, all of whom are part of a culinary revolution that goes by many names, with molecular gastronomy being the most widely known. Featuring clear and accessible scientific writing, the chapters combine to create a kind of high-tech cookbook that both foodies and physicists will want on their shelves—or, better yet, in their kitchen/labs. After devouring the book, even the most skilled chef or discriminating diner will gain a more nuanced appreciation of food.
Some of the chapters describe dishes, ingredients, and cooking techniques. Others take up the science of eating, explaining how sight, sound, mouth-feel, and other sensations shape the experience. In chapters such as “The Science of a Grilled Cheese Sandwich,” the authors use science to make the familiar unfamiliar, enriching our understanding and appreciation of foods we thought we already knew. The book also introduces us to new ways of cooking, including note-by-note cuisine—which, according to molecular gastronomy pioneer Herve This, “takes molecular gastronomy to a whole new level” (p.242). This approach uses chemical compounds as ingredients rather than whole plant or animal foods, but it is not an example of “substitutionism,” where industrially produced ingredients eliminate the need for agriculture.2 Indeed, “milk proteins” is listed as an ingredient in a dish described by This, suggesting that it is acceptable for compounds to be derived from whole foods (p.244). Perhaps a purely industrial cuisine will be the next step. Some of the contributors also appropriate tools and ingredients, such as centrifuges and xanthan gum, that are typically used in industrial food processing (p.2). Writing in the preface, Jeffrey Steingarten notes that “[t]he irony of importing the instruments and tools of the processed-food industry and its ‘additives’ into the artisan’s kitchen has been lost on nobody” (p.xiv).
This sort of creative appropriation underscores what I take to be the most important contribution of the book, particularly for those of us who are interested observers of, rather than active participants in, this exciting new field. Although the contributors disagree about how to define the field (the preface provides a nice introduction to these debates), several seem to agree that it is a branch of food science. In recent years, as readers of Gastronomica surely know, food science has gotten a very bad rap, partly as a result of withering critiques by influential food writers such as Michael Pollan. Yet as César Vega and David J. McClements remind us in their chapter, and as Pollan would no doubt concede, not all food scientists are employed in churning out “edible foodlike substances” to feed the food industry’s insatiable appetite for profits.3
The Kitchen as Laboratory offers an alternative vision of food science, in which scientific ways of knowing are used to deepen our appreciation and enjoyment of food, both the foods with which we are already familiar and the lab-borne creations that are yet to come. So grab a copy of the book, put on your lab coat, and get into the kitchen. Do not worry; it is okay to experiment. After all, even Michael Pollan agrees that every once in a while it is perfectly fine to eat something that was concocted in a lab.4
Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 84–85.
David Goodman, Bernardo Sorj, and John Wilkinson, From Farming to Biotechnology: A Theory of Agro-Industrial Development (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 2.
Michael Pollan, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), xviii.
Ibid., 41, 139.