Writing Center
Spring 2009 Edition

Culinary Chemist

Tessa Garrard
Expressive 2010 2nd Place

I was ready. My glasses were well set and adjusted to keep my eyes free from any chemical agents. I was equipped with gloves that reached half way up my forearms, to protect against any splatter that might occur. A protective apron also adorned my torso, combining with the heat coming off the inferno to make my body uncomfortable with its rising internal temperature. I was nervous and sweating, but I was ready… to cook!

This was a normal bright sunny day of backyard barbequing, and I was outside in charge of cooking. To some, barbeque is as foreign and intimidating as chemistry. The intricate network of specific things, amounts, and sequencing can get confusing and discouraging. But just as a chemist must experiment and learn how things react to get a desired outcome, a chef must do the same with food. The chicken that was being cooked had been marinated in barbeque and Worcestershire sauce for the past three hours, and was partnered on the menu with Ballpark hotdogs. The chicken seared as I turned it over on the grill, and I could almost see the meat soak up the marinade, encasing itself in flavor. I could hardly wait for this delicious meal to get off the grill and onto my plate. Twenty minutes later the table was set and the scent in the air started immediate salivation in the eaters’ hungry mouths. Luckily for me, this meal had turned out palatable. I felt as accomplished as a chemist who had just successfully made a cycloethane. However, there have been over times when I haven’t been so lucky.

Growing up in a family where food was deeply enjoyed and viewed as a key social component, I learned to cook at a very young age. With that age came many bad batches, burned bread, and dozens of bitter cookies. As I grew, these instances became fewer, but they did still happen, and they were forever engraved into my memory. I remember one particular experience vividly. I had been helping my dad cook pancakes since I was able to pour the flour into the mixing bowl and laugh as it produced a white puff that sometimes landed on my dad’s nose. I was positive that after my many years of apprenticing under the watchful eye of my dad, I was ready to try it on my own. So one Sunday morning, I woke up extra early to get breakfast ready for everyone before we left for church at ten o’ clock. Being only eight or nine years old, I had to pull a chair over to the counter so I could reach the mixer and find all the ingredients in the cupboard. Finally I had all the ingredients and measuring devices gathered, so I began.

First I got one cup measure and as concentrated as an eight-year-old could be, I measured three cups of the soft powdery substance into the mixing bowl. (I laughed to myself as each cup puffed up a little white cloud.) Next came the salt and milk, which were easy enough to add. After the milk and salt came the eggs. This is going to be tough, I thought. Dad always added the eggs because the shells always broke into little pieces when I tried to crack them open. But I was determined not to let anything stop me. So I cracked the eggs, and only a few pieces of the shell landed (and stayed) in the mixing bowl. The last ingredient I couldn’t find, and that was the baking soda. I tried looking for it, but with no success. Thinking it wasn’t that big of a deal because I only needed one and a half teaspoons of it, I continued on. I turned the mixer on and mixed all of the ingredients together until it formed a liquid-like, semi-lumpy mixture.

When the pancake mix was done, I found the skillet, put it on the stove, and turned on the burner. I carried the pancake mix over to the counter next to the stove and then moved the chair. My family was starting to stir, and I wanted to get breakfast ready quick enough to be a surprise. Confidently, I pulled the big ladle out of the second drawer, climbed up onto the chair and started pouring the batter into the skillet. I did it! I thought. Everyone is going to be so surprised! But my excitement quickly turned into sadness when I discovered that the pancakes weren’t fluffing up like the ones my dad made. I concluded that it must have been the first few scoops that were that way. So I turned the pancakes over and took them out of the skillet when they were done, greased the pan, and poured in some more. They were doing the same thing! They weren’t taking shape or rising, and I was starting to get nervous.

Just then, my dad walked into the kitchen. He was surprised to see me and asked me what I was doing. At that point, I began to cry. I explained how I had tried to make a surprise breakfast for everyone, and the pancakes weren’t working. My dad asked if I had added all the ingredients, and when I said I had left out the baking soda, he started to chuckle. While he added the baking soda to the rest of the pancake mixture, he explained that the baking soda was what made the pancakes fluff, and after adding the missing ingredient, he let me finish my surprise. This time, as I poured the mix into the skillet, the pancakes seemed to inflate and become a tall, golden brown masterpiece.

Breakfast was wonderful as my mom, dad, brothers, and sisters all commented on the delicious pancakes I made. To adorn them, we had butter, maple syrup, and buttermilk syrup that my dad had surprised me with as a small reward for my hard work. The butter melted on the steamy surfaces of the pancakes as people spread it across in a sporadic fashion, and the pancakes seemed to absorb the syrup with an almost selfish desire, like dry sponges in water, sealing in the sugary flavor. Laughter and praise filled the room as the pancakes filled our bellows, and after breakfast had been enjoyed, we washed off the sticky sweetness and headed to church. The pancakes had turned out perfect, as had my planned surprise breakfast.

Not all my cuisine endeavors have been as lucky as the near disaster I had with the pancakes. Once I made a batch of cookies that have no brown sugar or vanilla in them, and no one noticed until they took a bite. After they had, the whole batch was discarded because even milk could not cover the bitter flavor. Another time, I was preheating the oven to bake french fries and didn’t double check to see if any pots or pants had been left inside of it. That day I succeeded in melting off the bottom of a pair of dad’s work boots that he had set in the oven on low temperature to seal in the waterproofing treatment he’d applied. The oven stank for days! Even now, there will be times when I forget I’m cooking and happen to let macaroni noodles boil dry on the stove or unconsciously void eggs from a cake recipe.

Still today, I arm myself against the ongoing discoveries and experiments that the culinary world presents. My gloves don’t reach all the way up my arm now, but my interest in the science of cooking is still as intense as it was when I started. I don’t work with hydrochloric acid or potassium bromide, but working with oregano, rosemary, or thyme can prove just as dangerous and complicated.