Friday, 27 January 2017

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

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