From domestic science to food tech

"I think it is a sad reflection on our civilization that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés." Nicholas Kurti

Yesterday afternoon I made these Quince paste and vintage cheddar tarts with my granddaughters via Zoom. They have decided that we will have a virtual cooking lesson once a week. I think I had made the tarts once before for a family gathering because they are so quick and easy as well as being delicious. They must have liked them because it was their choice for the lesson. It was a lot of fun and the end result was pretty good - I've just had some leftovers for my lunch. However I don't think I taught them as much as I could have. And they really did want to learn. One of them asked at one point, for example, whether I had any tips for rolling out pastry - which I didn't. Only that if you are trying to roll out a rectangle it helps to keep banging in the sides to keep them straight - something I learnt from Delia, and this was not relevant to what we were doing anyway. But if I was at all scientific there were probably some points that could have been made about pressure and pliability, maybe even temperature. But as I say, I'm not a scientist.

I suppose I did give some other minor tips along the way, but the most striking thing about this particular dish is, I suppose, that the filling puffs up - as above just before I took them out of the oven, but within seconds they have deflated, as shown here. Why? Why do they puff up and why do they deflate? There are scientific questions to be answered here.

Cooking is indeed science - virtually all science is there in some way or another - physics, chemistry, biology and all their component parts, even geology. My kitchen bench is made of granite and as you look at it you can see all the different crystals and fundamental rocks that went into making it, which could, if you were interested, lead to all sorts of questions about how the rock was formed, and where it comes from, not to mention how it was removed from its original placement and converted into my kitchen bench.

Technology too - the tools we use, the packaging, preservation methods, how we find recipes, Zoom even.

Which is perhaps why back in my day cookery classes at school were called Domestic Science and today they are called Food Tech.

And just look at how those two phrases really encapsulate the different eras. 'Domestic' science. What an interesting juxtaposition of words in itself, the one being somewhat dismissive and feminine and the other exclusively academic and masculine. Men had nothing to do with domesticity in any form back then, and women did not have a lot to do with science - although that was, of course, changing. Domestic science, theoretically could have included other 'domestic' tasks but in practice it was purely cooking and in our domestic science lessons I don't remember learning much science. We were taught to keep pastry cool I seem to remember but I don't particularly remember learning why.

Food tech on the other hand has no such sex discriminatory overtones, and if there are it's in the opposite direction. Technology industries are notorious for their bias towards men. Food is simultaneously a broader and yet also a more specific term. And technology is different to science is it not? It's just an outcome of science. Or is it something different? Technology is sort of engineering and could engineering be said to be a science? And does technology seek to answer the question why, or the question how?

In an effort to understand how 'Food tech' differed from 'Domestic science' I went to my granddaughter's high school website and found their summary of what they hoped to achieve. You can look at it here. It doesn't talk about science at all but it does talk about health and nutrition and technique and method as well as principles. The page features a classy looking croquembouche that they made - I should ask if they learnt anything about why sugar crystals are able to be transformed via heat into a thin thread, for example.

But yes, I think 'Food tech' is different to 'Domestic science' in that there is definitely an emphasis on why we should eat certain foods rather than others and where that food comes from too - medical, nutritional and agricultural science if you like, which I suppose are differing aspects of the science of biology. I did learn those those things at school - but it was in 'proper' biology lessons, not in Domestic science.

What is science anyway? According to the Oxford Dictionary online it is:

"The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment."

Although it's archaic meaning was "knowledge of any kind."

Why is the crucial question when we come to science as a whole is it not? It's absolutely fundamental. The other questions are different. How? Well that comes from Why and is somehow subsidiary. First you establish the answer to Why and then you can look at How. When - well that's interesting but not so fundamental. That arises from How I think. Ditto for Where. And as to Who - well my husband has sort of said that this does not matter at all. Who we are, and Where we come from is not a scientific question to a pure scientist although I'm sure an anthropologist would disagree. After all there are a lot of Why questions that could be applied to who we are and where we come from. What - the final question is more a question of classification than discovery - although discoveries can be made - like discovering that a potato is closely related to deadly nightshade for example. But I think there is a sort of hierarchy within the sciences themselves with Physics at the top followed by Chemistry, and then Biology - well all the biological sciences have their own order of importance, and then the others.

So Domestic Science - not real science is it? Or is it? Do you remember the crazy scientist Julius Sumner Miller and his program Why is it So? it was a program aimed at kids that had him doing things in the kitchen (not always in the kitchen), with food and then explaining the scientific principles - most usually physics - he was a physicist after all - or sometimes chemistry - behind it all. And the fundamental question to be answered was Why followed by How. It was great fun and hugely informative. And I'm sure there are similar educational programs today - Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki - springs to mind. But really we should pay more attention to the science of food and keep asking why as we cook.

And there are 'crazy' people out there doing just that - with two - Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià at the top of that particular tree. Their approach is blatantly and definitely experimental.

Indeed Adrià closed his hugely successful restaurant El Bulli in Barcelona to concentrate on experimentation in his El Bulli 1846 lab.

In science, I seem to remember, the crucial thing is the scientific method. You create a hypothesis and then you set out to prove it by experimenting. A slightly less scientific method of experimentation is just to try things to see what happens, which is possibly more what our experimental cooks are doing. We ordinary mortals may mock their molecular cuisine - snail porridge and bacon ice cream et al., but they could be described as true experimental scientists.

“My feed is generally particle physics and the evolution of smell,” says Heston Blumenthal and:

"in the lab in France he’s looking at changing the structure of water, to give it a different texture, and applying that to cooking. “It’s like going back to the beginning with water but using all the techniques I’ve developed over the years and starting again.” Ferran Adrià/Lauren Taylor - Wise Living

Extreme I know but then so is the Hadron Collider. These are the leading edges of science and its application in technology. We can learn a lot about science through cooking and we can also experiment every time we cook a meal - like I shall be this evening when I try to figure out what to do with an oversupply of celery and some chicken. Or I can be non experimental and rigidly follow a recipe that I have found and hope that along the way the writer of the recipe might answer some of my big Why questions along the way.

Or is cooking an art rather than a science - and are the two different anyway - art and science I mean? That's for another day.


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