Skip to main content

Chemistry in Your Kitchen - Matthew Hartings ****

As author Matthew Hartings, chemistry lecturer by day and kitchen wizard by night (well, he has things he says he's pretty good at cooking) points out, chemistry and cooking have a lot in common. You don't have to be into molecular gastronomy like Heston Blumenthal, running your kitchen more like a lab than an everyday part of the home. Whenever we deal with food and drink, we are inevitably dealing with chemistry.

As Hartings also points out, chemistry is the Cinderella of the popular science world, so it's great to see a book in this field that works reasonably well (I'll come back to that 'reasonably').

What we get here are trips through a whole host of familiar (at least, familiar if you are American) food and drink experiences, from coffee via Kraft Mac and Cheese, through meat to beer and cocktails. At his best, Hartings is an engaging storyteller, for example taking us through his experience being hauled onto a TV show at the last minute to talk about the science of bacon. He proudly records half an hour of fascinating chemistry-related bacon information - why it smells so good when it's cooking, for instance. Only to have his broadcast contribution cut down to little more than 'I love bacon.'

Hartings is equally good at little asides that you don't expect - for instance, we discover that those lovely circular vibration waves on the cup in Jurassic Park when the T-rex is approaching were produced by vibrating a guitar string under the cup. And sometimes too the chemistry itself can be surprising and interesting with a direct, understandable impact on what we eat and drink - where, for example he describes the ways that the different kinds of pectin work. But Hartings does have the classic scientist-as-writer problem that he doesn't realise when there's too much chemistry in one lump and he needs a good leavening of narrative (see what I've done there with the food metaphor?) - there are parts that are simply too chemistry-heavy.

Another issue is that some points are drawn out far longer than they really need to be - a spot of judicious editing would have helped. But it's when the chemistry gets out of control, for example in the lengthy description of the Maillard reaction. It genuinely is interesting and important in many areas of cooking - but the chemical expansion goes on far too long.

If I'm going to be really picky there was also one cosmological issue when he says that Carl Sagan’s quote ‘we are star stuff’ describes 'how every atom in our body was once made in a star.’ I'm no biologist, but I think there's plenty of hydrogen in our bodies and I'd be interested to know what stars made hydrogen from. But that's nit-picking.

Overall, I did have to skip through a few overloaded chemistry bits, but I still enjoyed the book. Hartings has a light, chatty style and brings a lot of food chemistry to life. I may have been a little generous with the star rating because of the shortage of good popular chemistry books - but there's a lot to like here. (Incidentally, the Royal Society of Chemistry really should have priced this as a popular science book - at the moment it's more like a textbook, with a cover that gives away its origins.)


Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…