The Science of Gastronomy

Last week, I started a new Coursera MOOC: The Science of Gastronomy, taught by Lam Lung Yeung and King L. Chow of The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The class discussion boards for next week’s class opened up a week early, to give everyone a chance to do the “where are you from” thing before the thrashing started in earnest. It’s kind of hilarious what happened next, before the class even started: the vegans were upset about the listed steak assignment, the kosher and halal adherents didn’t like the shrimp course, and I think there are allergies to every food mentioned in the syllabus, not to mention paleos, celiacs, diabetics, raws, and lord knows what else. Then there was the counter-reaction, which at times got unnecessarily nasty. I’m not surprised; food is the new religion, and some course message boards are more, shall we say, energetic, than others.

I have a pretty fair knowledge of heavy-duty cooking for someone who hasn’t done a lot of creative cooking in a long time (throwing a chicken breast in the oven doesn’t count), and have some general conceptual knowledge of the science involved (all those Good Eats episodes were not watched in vain). But it’s one thing to be able to rattle off terms like “Maillard reaction” (aka browning, the yummy stuff) or “emulsifier” (which I sorta kinda understand: one end likes water, one likes oil) and another to actually understand the details. I can already appreciate concepts; quantifying hurts. That’s why I want to take science courses, not cooking classes.

The first week (heat transfer, and taste/satiety) was surprisingly lightweight, with conceptual science at the level they might explain it on the evening news. Even though the course was listed as requiring “no science background” and “only high school science” (puzzling in itself), I’m slightly disappointed, but many of these classes start off with a review of sorts, and a lightweight course isn’t a bad idea right now. I did learn, and organize, quite a bit of information about methods of heat transfer, and how they affect cooking, but I’m still hazy on phase transition. But there’s still time. [ETA: Oddly, in the second week, he’s throwing out terms like “ion channels” and “n-propyl-thiouracil” with no explanation. So the course is now a strange lightweight/complicated hybrid. Be careful what you wish for.]

It’s an enjoyable class, but for me, this is something of a warm-up for the October offering of Science & Cooking, Harvardx’s (the “x” to distinguish it from the “real” Harvard, I guess) course/public lecture series, offered through edX. Over the past few months, I’ve been watching the videos of the public lecture/demo series from the past three years – demos by people like Ferren Adria (translated by Jose Andres, for pete’s sake) and Nathan Myhrvold, among dozens of others. So when I saw the class part was available online – free, by the way – I signed up. Then I heard about the Coursera class, and signed up for that, too.

You can never take too many free classes. Until you do.


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