20 Jun 2005

Norwegian school reform: Food in science and science in food

Norwegian education is at the present going through a politically driven reform - new curriculum for all pupils/students, including primary (6-11 yrs), secondary (12-16) and high school (16-18). The current curriculum called L97 (6-16 yrs) is translated into English, but the new ones are not yet translated (not yet finished, but drafts are published). In Norwegian primary/secondary school natural sciences seem to be less focused than in many other countries, and the "food subject" (home economics) has been more or less devoid of scientific aspects - few teachers teach both science and home economics. Is this, maybe, a result of a gender barrier? As home economics traditionally has focused on the "home" part, it has been a women's matter, being placed among the "soft" subjects ("women cook the daily meals at home, restaurant chefs are generally men" as a simplistic angle of incidence).

The new curriculum draft for home economics is interesting in that it focuses more on the food itself than before (which also included house cleaning etc.), and is split into three main subjects:
- Food and lifestyle
- Food and culture
- Food and consumer issues

In spite of the mentioned traditional barriers, there are loads of common subject matters that may very well be taught from an interdisciplinary point of view. Also, many science subjects may be taught with food as a starting point.

I've made a very informal analysis of crossing elements in the curriculum drafts for the two subjects and find that:
- Food in science - 34 out of 129 subjects may be treated with food as a starting point
-Science in home economics - 18 out of 39 subjects may be treated with science as a starting point

Until now home economics has been exempt from examination, but from 2006 this will also be subject to grading. Maybe will this make schools and leaders more committed to treat home economics as a subject on equal terms to other subjects? Will this bing about a change in profile of the subject? Will we see a more theoretical and less practical hands-on home economics? Will the "gender distortion" continue? Will there be a twist towards a more masculine subject (and if so, do we want this to happen)?


8 Jun 2005

Tomato foam

The Norwegian cook, food writer and weekly source and inspiration (at least to me) Andreas Viestad wrote a fascinating piece on tomato mousse:
Run a tomato or three (cut in pieces) in a blender for five minutes. Running for a shorter time will not give the desired result even though it seems finished. Pour into a bowl and leave for a few hours and you get a mousse-like pink jelly. With reference to prof. Hervé This he guesses that the reason may be liberation of pectin from the crushed tomato skin. Pectin is a natural occurring acidic polysaccharide/carbohydrate which contributes to stiffness in some fruit/berry jams and jellies.

I tried this with moderately satisfactory result; a fairly ok foam/mousse on the top with a more soggy mass at the bottom of the glass.

If pectin is the big point
- using ripe tomatoes should give poorer result that unripe (or less ripe) as the pectin is broken down during ripening. This is by the way the reason why you should use not very ripe berries/fruit when making jam/jelly and more ripe when making juice/syrup. Vice versa: ripe/unripe tomatoes should not make a difference if pectin is not involved.
- Pectin is located in the skin, cell walls and between cells of the tomato. Breaking the cell walls (destroying the cells) by blending should therefore not be a critical point.

If breaking the cells walls is of vital importance
- freezing the tomatoes should be very effective in breaking the cell walls as expansion and formation of sharp crystals by loads of water inside the tomato will cut/explode the cells from within. After freezing, long blending time should not be necessary. Why this should be, I'm not sure. A biologist colleague meant that a possible reason may be that enzymes within the cells are liberated and can react with other parts of the tomato.

Suggested (comparative) experiments:
For consistent experiments, the same blender speed should always be used, and the container should be rinsed between each blending. Washing unnecessary? (most of the tomato is water soluble, but important compounds may be water insoluble)

1) Blending time - cut four tomatoes in two and divide in two heaps (two halves from the same tomato in each group). This way, I'll have to identical heaps. Run one heap for 1-2 minutes, the second for at least 5 minutes. Pour into separate bowls and leave for a few (3-5?) hours.

2) Breaking cell walls - cut four tomatoes in two and divide in two heaps as above. Put each heap in a plastic bag, leave one in the fridge and the other in the freezer overnight. Thaw the frozen tomatoes and run each heap in the blender for an identical period of time. Pour into separate bowls and leave for a few (3-5?) hours.

3) Ripe vs. unripe and blending time double experiment - this is a little less stringent that the point above, but worth a try. You need ripe and unripe (less ripe) tomatoes, ideally from the same plant (grow your own). Make four heaps:
a1) Ripe + short blending time
a2) Ripe + long blending time
b1) Unripe + short blending time
b2) Unripe + long blending time
Run the four heaps separately as for 1). Pour into separate bowls and leave for a few (3-5?) hours.

I'll have to follow up this some time soon (maybe wait for our own tomatoes to ripen?). Results and reflections will be published.


Addition 11. May 2010: Report from The Flemish Primitives 2010 by Martin "khymos" Lersch has some interesting and possibly relevant info on this matters as well as references. Maybe a solution is to be found therein?

4 Jun 2005

About intersections - music, chemistry and food

In my opinion, some of the most interesting and creative things happen in the intersections between fields of interest. My fate is being both experimental chemist and experimental musician/percussionist, maybe a less-that-obvious combination to look for intersections, but none the more a good reason to construct one. I'm not talking about the more obvious connections between music and chemistry/food/taste/smell (see below), but intersections where chemistry/food/... has a direct impact on the creation or (in my case) performance, of music.

Playing in a improvisation-based jazz trio (just start playing, no songs, arrangements or agreements), I'm constantly looking for things that could trigger new musical ideas. Visual triggers are relatively common (Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Kari Bremnes and Edvard Munch), but what about scent or taste? What kind of improvised music would result from the scent of rotten eggs, roasted meat, cinnamon etc.? And next: what if the scent was created on-the-go carrying out the chemical reactions while playing? This tastes of futurism, doesn't it? Another idea could be to feed digital data from chemical measurements and analyses into a music computer program using some sort of conversion from chemical data to pitch, rhythm, tempo, dynamics and so forth.

Master chef Pierre Gagnaire has some fascinating thoughts about similarities between music, improvisation and gastronomy, among them:
"[...]I imagine a flavour like a melody, then explore new ground with anxiety but determination to shape an ephemeral jewel from the magical treasures of discovery[...]" - beautiful, and such a striking description of my experiences from freely improvised music as well!

Also, a possibly interesting compilation of scientists/musicians/composers is the New Trier High School Mixing Art/Music and/or Science and Math page

A few more obvious (and thus less interesting?) connections between music and food, molecular gastronomy, chemistry:
- music to accompany food (background music in restaurants). This could be interesting if the music actively comments the food (or vice versa), or even better, if they affect each other.
- musicians/composers that are/were chemists; i.e. A. Borodin)
- chemistry in making instruments; materials, lacquer/varnish etc. (less interesting, maybe, because it's too far a reach for me...)

The search goes on, at a slow pace however, as this is a long term project.


1 Jun 2005

Molecular gastronomy/molekylær gastronomi

Molecular gastronomy (Norwegian: molekylær gastronomi). What is this constellation? I believe that the term, as language in general, is in constant development. However, there are a few other words that together could clarify. In my opinion molecular gastronomy contains all the following terms at one time: food, cooking, (natural) science, gastronomy, kitchen chemistry, pleasure, curiosity, and maybe social sciences as well?

One point is that this is not primarily the science of industrial food production, which would be food science, but what happens in the home- or restaurant kitchen from a scientific point of view. How can science contribute to cooking and perception while eating so that cooking develops in new directions (or develops further in an already set direction)? Googling around for the term led me to the wonderful term 'the science of deliciousness’. This link will also lead you to more information and people directly involved in the field.

What fascinates me about this is that it brings together people from different disciplines and different cultures. I'm certain that I as a chemist could contribute to cooking, but I firmly believe that cookery can contribute to my practice as chemist (and not the least, chemistry teacher - more about this at a later point).