Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Lab Gourmet

Technically, this post is cheating, a shortcut. It is the product of cross-pollination (or cross-contamination?) of two blogs. I recently wrote a food-centric post for my science-y blog and I think it may fit well here. You are about to get a glimpse of the true depths of my dork-hood.

I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about food. Eating food, cooking food, foraging for food, reading and writing about food are always at the front of my mind. I consider going to restaurants a full-blown hobby (and a most excellent occupation). Since I spend the majority of my waking hours in a laboratory, a lot of my food day dreaming has no choice but take place in a lab. Many may be disturbed by the combination of lab and food. In reality, labs are full of edibles – you just have to look closely to find them.

- The most obvious lab food items are seaweed extracts such as agar and sodium alginate. The former is prized by vegans as an animal product-free Jell-O alternative, while the latter has been elevated to new heights by Ferran Adria, chef of El Bulli, one of the best-known restaurants in the world. Adria uses sodium alginate to create liquid pea ravioli, in which a thin membrane encloses a sphere of bright green pea soup. The bubble bursts in the mouth, releasing the soup and all of its glorious flavor in one big gush.

- We use 5% milk to block Western blots. It is ordinary, reconstituted non-fat dried milk, whatever brand happens to be sold in bulk at Costco. Milk in itself is not terribly appealing, however, one of the labs I rotated in used autoclaved milk for storing HSV plaque picks (why, I have absolutely no idea). Autoclaving milk turns it a beautiful light caramel color. Does autoclaved milk taste slightly bitter and sweet, like burnt sugar, or is it simply burnt? I had to exhibit considerable self control not to tip some out into my cupped hand and try a sip. I would have done, if it wasn’t for the disgusted and perplexed stares shot my way when I mentioned it.

- Bottles of ultra pure PCR-grade water line a shelf in my lab. Would be the best, cleanest and crispest tasting water of all time, putting Poland Spring and Evian to shame? Likely not since its deionized, but it calls to me nonetheless.

- I, on multiple occasions, have gazed longingly at a giant jug of purified caffeine sitting on the dry chemical shelf. Enough said.

That’s all I can think of at the moment. Have I missed anything? What other food-related items are found in labs? I promise not to tell the radioactivity surveyor.


JC said...

No, you can't be a blog-mixer!


We used DI water in the plant where I used to work, and at the moment I can't remember the horrible things that were said to happen to someone who would dare to drink the stuff. I do rememebr how they always told us in high school chemistry about how they put phenolpthaline (sp?)(supposedly a strong laxative) into the ethanol so us tricky kids wouldn't be tempted to drink it.

aimee said...

I'm not sure how I feel about the whole molecular gastronomy malarkey. Science plays a huge part in creating our 'every day' - I should probably appreciate that more than I do - but I just don't feel comfortable with science being involved with my food. And shush, I know science already is involved with my food, but I don't like being so aware of it.

I think the problem is that I'm a hopeless romantic and food is a hugely personal and comforting thing for me. Having a precise science behind my meal makes it seem so clinical and unemotional. Which is ridiculous really; there's got to be so much passion being put into experimenting with techniques in order to strive for improvement and perfection. And the careful consideration of combining appearance, taste, texture, smell and sounds to create the best possible dishes which indulge all of our senses? That's love and commitment right there isn't it?

I don't know; I just find it somewhat unsettling to think about everything being governed by formula and routine. But then what's a recipe if not a formula for creating the same meal time and time again? Anyway, this is absolutely not what you were posting about, my apologies.

JC said...

I forgot to mention that one of the contestants on Top Chef last year was very much into molecular gastronomy, and I thought it was pretty interesting. He tried to do an encapsulation with some vinaigrette, but it was so humid in Hawaii that the alginate wouldn't set properly.

Anna said...

JC - Do you think they meant it? Did they add it? They couldn't have, could they?
About the Top Chef guy - it's interesting how approachable and ubiquitous some of the molecular gastronomy approaches have become - encapsulation, foams, and so on. I wish they would quit with the stupid foams already. It's only fun once.

Aimee - I completely agree with you. A scientific approach to food removes the human, caring, emotional (like you said) element, which is a huge part of preparing and eating food. I can imagine going to a molecular gastronomy restaurant as a novelty, something neat and new to experience and not because I am really hungry (I would probably wind up having a burger immediately following). It's the intersection of creativity, food preparation, and dare I say it.... art. I don't believe it's a realistic approach to everyday food.

JC said...

I don't know, I never knew anyone who was brave enough to try it! The mere threat seemed to work pretty well.

That same guy went nutso with foams, and did one almost every week. It became a joke among the judges.

DD said...

Purified caffeine? Seriously? We've been friends for a bajillion years and now you tell me you have access to purified caffeine? Give it up.


Kevin Z said...

While the PCR-grade water (nano-pure?) may be the best filtered around, I'm not so sure that it is necessarily healthier. You could probably drink oodles of it without feeling your thirst properly quenched. It lacks any salts that your body needs for water regulation.

I run into this problem when I do research for several weeks on a ship. They use purified water, where all salts are removed. After a few days to a week, if i haven't been getting enough salts in my diet, I (and several others of the science party) get headaches and lack energy.