Monday, May 26, 2003

"The Nose: A Profile of Sex, Beauty, and Survival," by Gabrielle Glaser

Gabrielle Glaser is a journalist, and "The Nose" is a journalistic smattering of tidbits about "anthropology and art, science and literature, sickness and health, sex and fertility, appearance and popular culture, mythology and memory." But to me, the most resonant parts of the book are the author's explorations of her own memory and the sometimes unexpected pairings between scent and event. For example: the aromas of baking remind her of her mother's sometimes irrational behavior; the smell of permanent-wave lotion reminds her of the sense of feminine bonding she'd felt as a girl in her grandmother's beauty shop. All great stuff that has had the desired effect of reawakening my desire to get back to the revisions on a certain story fermenting away on my hard drive...

Other chapters center on the long human history of unsanitary, stinky squalor, as well as the current American obsession with totally obliterating any hint of bodily odor. Descriptions of sinus surgery--from primitive (Freudian-era) operations performed in order to subdue female "hysteria" to modern attempts to cure sinusitis--sent shivers up my spine and made my sinuses ache. Then there was the technique of irradiating the adenoids by means of radium-tipped wire probes. From the 1940ies into the 1960ies, this was a popular technique for relieving sinus and respiratory problems. Many years later the stupidity became manifest in the form of increased frequencies of brain tumors and thyroid disorders in treated individuals.

Of more interest to me than the information on the history of fashions in rhinoplasty were the stories about temporary or permanent anosmia--absence of a sense of smell. The sense of smell can be damaged by sinusitis, certain medications, tobacco smoke, or constant exposure to certain chemicals in the workplace. The ability to smell decreases with age, and may be severely impaired by Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. Among subjects showing moderate memory loss, poor performance on a test of ability to discriminate common odors was associated with a higher likelihood of developing Alzheimer's. She quotes from Proust that when nothing else tangible remains from the past, "the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory."

Sunday, May 25, 2003

"What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained," by Robert L. Wolke

I'd heard about "What Einstein Told His Cook" some time ago, and thought it might be an interesting read, but I already had stacks of "research" for stories to do, and never quite got to it. Well, finally, I did. As with "Anatomy of a Dish," I still have the idea in mind that I might need to develop some science lessons for the school my son will be attending next year (it's an alternative school that relies heavily on parent participation, and science seems to be an area where they could use some particular help). I like the idea of using cooking chemistry and biology to get across broader lessons in the context of making something yummy.

So in that context, this book wasn't quite what I was hoping for (it's heavier on the "gee whiz" type of information than on real science), but it was a fun read and gave me a few ideas. I'll also be copying down the reference pages, and checking out some of this author's primary sources. Chapters cover: sugar, salt, fats, "chemicals" (i.e. baking powder, vinegar, lye), meat and fish, heat and cold, coffee and wine, microwave cooking, and tools and technology.

One potential experiment might come from dissolving sugar in water--with heating, more than two pounds of sugar (five cups) can be coaxed to dissolve in only one cup of water. Also, caramelization, which (strictly speaking) means "the heat-induced browning of a food that contains sugars, but no proteins. Um, caramel; um, peanut brittle. What I didn't know, is that caramelization is different from the Maillard reactions (high-temperature browning reactions that take place when sugars and starches are heated in the presence of proteins or amino acids).