7 Dec 2010

Why are some considered food lovers whereas others are considered food geeks?

Often, when I talk about food I'm met with an attitude that I'm talking chemistry and for that reason whatever I say is incomprehensible. The blinds go down and I see the eyes of the person I talk with go all shifty. Probably, he or she considers me being a food geek...

Whereas "food lover" has mostly positive connotations, "food geek" has this mixed flavour to it. Could it be that the "food geek" (whoever that might be) holds some concepts which he applies in considering the food and which sets him apart from the food lover?

One reason that food geeks are considered as, simply geeks, might perhaps find it's reason in what has by pedagogics researchers Meyers & Land (2003, 2005) been coined "threshold concepts". Take any stereotypical notion of a geek, and you'll probably find that one important reason that you consider him a geek is because he holds some knowledge or a world view that lies beyond your grasp (for simplicity I'll use "he" for the geek, but it could of course be a "she" as well. Likewise, I'll use "you" for the non-geek). This could e.g. be a view coloured by mathematical insight (maths/physics geek) or chemical insight (chemistry geek). Often he sees things using his mathematical or chemical spectacles that you normally would consider everyday matters. Accordingly, for many "food geeks" food is not only food but an assembly of plant/animal cells, molecules or even "chemicals" that can be manipulated. The result is a gap between his way of seeing things and your way of seeing things, in this case food and cooking; he becomes the geek.

What is this gap between "the geek" and "you"?
According to educational researchers Meyer & Land (2003, p. 1)
[a] threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and possibly inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress.
In the case of the food geek, the threshold concept might be the fact that food is built up by microscopic entities, be it plant/animal cells at the microscopic level, or atoms/molecules/ions at the submicroscopic level (I've blogged on this previously). Being familiar with seeing food this way, and with some knowledge about how cells behave or how various chemical substances react, equips the geek with mental tools which is not possessed by others (i.e. "you").

What is a threshold concept?
According to Meyer & Land, threshold concepts are
  1. transformative
    as soon as you understand the concept, it makes you see things in a new way (remember the food geek)
  2. probably irreversible
    when you pass the barrier/threshold, it is difficult or even impossible to go back. This is why teachers sometimes have difficulty placing themselves in the student's shoes; "I can't understand why they don't follow me. It's so simple!" This might be an important reason for the mentioned gap between those possessing the knowledge, the geek, and those who don't.
  3. integrative
    exposing previously hidden interrelatedness, a "suddenly, the pieces fit together" experience. A typical experience can be the first time you truly realise that doneness for meat is mainly a question of the meat temperature and not the cooking time.
(There are a couple of more point which I've omitted here)

Some times we hold the concept but at the same time we don't act upon it
Some times, we accept something as a fact while still not acting upon it. Perkins has coined this "inert knowledge" (Meyer & Land, 2003, p. 8). One example is my own case. While having years of chemistry education I didn't use my chemistry knowledge when cooking, at least before I became interested in molecular gastronomy, but occasionally still so. In the lab I was a chemist, but at home I wasn't. Perhaps I didn't hold this concept in the home environment, but did so in the lab? This might point towards a view on these matters that what we learn is situated in a context and cannot easily be transferred to new situations (Lave & Wenger proposed this during the 90's). This is the same phenomenon which makes it so difficult to transcribe what you learn at school to be relevant to your everyday life. You may learn about geometry in school, but still you don't use this knowledge when you redecorate your house even though it might have been a good idea to do so.

Some possible threshold concepts in science vs cooking
  • fruit and vegetables are built up of plant cells (relevance to e.g. water transport/osmosis)
  • meat doneness is mainly a function of temperature, with time as a secondary factor --> use a kitchen thermometer when you cook meat
  • doneness when baking bread is a function of temperature --> use a kitchen thermometer inside the loaf when you bake ("extreme geek" link, "geek" link, "others" link)
  • physical laws of heat transfer apply to food when cooked (heat distribution from outside and inwards, heat transfer is different in tissue rich and poor in water respectively etc.)
  • food ultimately consists of molecules and salts, which themselves consist of atoms and/or ions. The microscopic properties of these compounds manifest themselves in how the food reacts upon manipulations in the kitchen (heating, cooling, whisking, reaction with other compounds)
  • mathematics, chemical formulae and reaction equations are practical ways of describing and understanding what happens when cooking because cooking is "simply" a matter of physical and chemical phenomena (technically speaking, of course. Some would say that this takes the joy out of cooking, others would say the exactly opposite)
  • some food substances/components are water soluble whereas other a fat soluble (you cannot make a salty or sweet flavoured oil, drinking water has only a limited, or maybe no, effect when you have taken something hot such as chilli peppers). Ref. 2007 article and interview with Hervé This "Salt doesn't dissolve in oil, silly" from The Globe and Mail. The picture above shows blueberry juice (water phase) in chilli oil (oil phase) showing that some compounds are water soluble whereas others are soluble in fat

Some possible threshold concepts in science and mathematics in general
  • the foreign language of chemical formulae and reaction equations is a good way of describing chemical compounds and reactions, and hence the world around us
  • understanding what really lies behind a unit, such as km/h for velocity. This unit is not simply a "name", but literally means how many kilometres you move per hours driving. Hence, you can use this unit to deduce the formula d = v × t rather than learning the formula by heart. This applies to a host of other formulae and units, such as concentration, density etc.
  • and ultimately that science due to it's nature is something very different from a belief. You cannot choose to believe or not in science. If it is 90% certain that global warming is human-made, you cannot simply choose to believe in the remaining 10% (as some of our politicians shockingly encourage us to do...)

So, should we do something about it? ...and if so, what?
Historically, during the nineteenth century a conflict arose called "grautstriden" (the porridge
conflict) between the writer and scholar P. C. Asbjørnsen (alternative link) and sociologist Eilert Sundt being proponent for Norwegian housewives/farm wives . Asbjørnsen brought new scientific knowledge about food and health from his travels in Europe (Germany, Holland, Denmark) whereas the cooking practices in rural Norway were dominated by tradition and inherited methods or knowledge. With his new scientific knowledge acquired from amongst others Justus von Liebig(!), Asbjørnsen carried a new way of seeing food and eating (i.e. he had acquired a threshold concept not held by others in Norway at that time). Eating was

not only an everyday activity to fill one's belly, but a question of nutritional value. In 1859 he managed to publish Hermann Klencke'sChemische Koch- und Wirtschaftsbuch” in Norwegian translation and in 1864 he published his own cookbook "Fornuftigt madstel" ("Rational cooking", my translation), with emphasis on the word rational. Today, we can see some of the same traits and conflicts such as the "Italy vs. molecular gastronomy" case (three links here), but also Hervé This' criticism that despite our vast knowledge "we still cook as we did in the Middle ages".

How to approach this is a difficult question. In my opinion it is important not to stir up another conflict, although debate should be welcome. I believe that some efforts might be working, and examples include
  • the Swedish blog Matmolekyler by self-appointed food geeks (Swedish: matnörd). The blog is well written and in such a way as to invite a wide variety of readers
  • educational attempts such as the efforts by Portuguese Paulina Mata and coworkers as well as American Exploratorium's Science of cooking (a fine balance using such things in school contexts, however)
  • some TV chefs, writers and scientists are able to manage the fine balance of using scientific concepts while at the same time grasping peoples fascination for food and its components. Examples are scientist Hans-Uno Bengtsson, writer/TV chef Andreas Viestad and several others
  • projects and efforts that allow tradition and science to meet on more or less equal terms is in my opinion promising. One such example is Norwegian writer Astri Riddervold's books on food preservation (ethnology and chemistry perspective). Another is the project on "Culinary precisions" or "Kitchen stories" started in several countries. A relevant link to such information is The food timeline, by the way.

In any case it is important that we, who are often considered the food geeks, don't end up in a "scientific crusade against tradition" because the tradition might just as well supply us with knowledge which science has not as yet uncovered/described. Therefore, meeting on equal terms and with mutual respect might be the clue. Consequently, "kitchen myths" is not a term I'd recommend. If we rather turn this into a quest in order to understand what lies in a cooking tradition, I'm in on it any time. That is also why I've suggested to analyse what has been coined "Culinary precisions" by Hervé This but which we have chosen to term "Kitchen stories".

Main references
Meyer & Land (2003). Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge 1 – Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising. In Rust (Ed.), Improving Student Learning: Theory and Practice Ten Years On (Vol. 10). Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (can be read at google books, or downloaded as pdf)

Blog posts herein on "Culinary precisions"/"Kitchen stories" (including a number of relevant references)

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