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The sci-fry answer guy: Author Bob Wolke uses scientific method to debunk myths

Sunday, June 09, 2002

By Suzanne Martinson, Food Editor, Post-Gazette

If you read Bob Wolke's "What Einstein Told His Cook," you may have to kick some old wives' tales right out of the kitchen. (Old husbands' tales, too.) Marble counters are not cooler than wooden boards for rolling out pastry dough. Adding salt to the water you're boiling for pasta doesn't speed up the cooking process enough to make a difference. (Half a second, maybe.) And it never gets hot enough to fry eggs on the sidewalk -- unless the cook cheats.

Bob Wolke answers more than 100 questions, such as "Can a potato remove the excess salt from oversalted soup? "(Answer: No) in his book "What Einstein Told His Cook." (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

"I love debunking," says the Mount Washington writer. "There are all kinds of crazy suppositions that people have, and I love shooting them down."

Still, he says the book is less an expose than a teaching tool.

If you buy the University of Pittsburgh chemistry professor emeritus' book (W.W. Norton: $25.95) as a Father's Day gift, its recipient may get the upper hand in arguing what Wolke calls the "fuelish question" about whether it's better to grill with charcoal or gas.

But be warned. We may cling to our primitive beliefs, but Wolke did the research. Take the egg that won't fry, despite the heat wave. On a visit to see his 35-year-old daughter, Leslie, in Austin, he engaged in an experiment.

At high noon it was 100 degrees in Texas. He discovered that blacktop gets hotter than concrete, but neither approached the 158 degrees needed to set an egg's white and yolk. As for those Mojave Desert sidewalk egg-fryers in Oatman, Ariz., Wolke writes that they "allow such gimmicks as magnifying glasses, mirrors, aluminum deflectors. ..."

Given the public's fear of science, I hesitate even to say the word, but Wolke's a scientist. He likes to know how things work and why, and his book tells all, in a witty, readable style. In fact, he seems the grand master of slipping in the science while elevating the giggle gauge. Sometimes, though, it's hard not to learn something. Even this food editor with a minor in science (read: more chemistry than I ever wanted) felt her misconceptions shatter in nearly every chapter.

Not every science book has recipes -- or at least the edible kind. This book does. (There were always Bunsen burners in my sophomore chem lab, but those were used to produce stinky odors.) Wolke's book has the kind of real recipes that Einstein's cook might have used if she'd read the Post-Gazette. They come from Marlene Parrish, PG food writer and Bob's wife.

"The book was fairly far along when we began to think about recipes," he says, and not every kitchen science question lent itself to a culinary example. "The chapter on microwaving was hard, but then we came up with Jade Green Summer Soup."

Although Bob and Marlene may be more notorious in Pittsburgh for their his-and-her Travel story on visiting a nude beach, Wolke is no stranger to food writing. The "Food 101" column he writes for The Washington Post won him awards in the big three of food journalism -- the James Beard, the Bert Greene (International Association of Culinary Professionals) and the Association of Food Journalists. A syndicated columnist, he is a consulting editor for Cook's Illustrated magazine and works behind the scenes on the science segments for "America's Test Kitchen" on PBS. (It airs at 2 p.m. Tuesdays on WQED-TV.)

And now he's on a book tour that included New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis, as well as this interview on the patio of the couple's Chatham Village townhouse.

Side-dish science

Wolke says he welcomed the chance to follow his "What Einstein Didn't Know" and its sequel, "What Einstein Told His Barber," with a book that is subtitled: "Kitchen Science Explained."

The book is bound to cause trouble, though. If we read it, we may have to let go of some of Grandma's heartfelt admonitions on the fine points of cooking that we learned as newlyweds. "It's primarily a book that explains what goes on in the kitchen," he says.

One of the book's joys is that some quirks of the kitchen may never have occurred to us. That's what makes Bob Wolke the science teacher we wished we had when we were stuck with Big Bad Science Snob. He's not afraid to lunge at a joke to explain a concept when Big Bad would have bored us silly with irrelevant detail.

It wasn't easy, though.

"I tried to write the book without using the word molecule," Wolke says. He thinks the term is "off-putting" to the nonscientist.

In the end, his "particule" lost and molecule won. But he gives us some hang-in-there cues as answers flow. His scientific asides are usually in parentheses and run like this: (Techspeak: the sodium and chloride ions). Sometimes there's another reference, such as: (For more, ask your friendly neighborhood chemist about "activity coefficients.")

Or not.

Answers can be appetizing

Writers and scientists often have different goals, and when we asked what his goals were -- other than selling books, of course -- he said: "This is my hometown, and maybe it can answer the question, 'Whatever happened to Bob Wolke?' "

Quite a lot, actually, since he retired in 1990 after 30 years at Pitt, where he aimed his teaching talents at nonscience majors. It was his effort to make the subject relevant to everyday life.

Today, Wolke revels in the give-and-take that he receives from readers, albeit by e-mail. Not that Washington Post readers are all one big happy agreeable lot. In a series on salt, he wrote that using fancy sea salts in cooking is useless because, though there are textural differences, once they're dissolved they taste the same. This drew the wrath of chefs who would not be caught in a kitchen without their expensive sea salt.

But nothing came close to the organized ire that followed a column on food irradiation, in which he reported that hundreds of studies had failed to show any harm from eating irradiated foods.

There are people afraid of science who don't want to read about anything new. Bob, on the other hand, likes readers who question his Food 101. In follow-up columns, he often includes evidence that changed his mind and information contributed by readers.

Food science can, indeed, be complicated. On the subject of beet vs. cane sugar, he writes that once refined, "cane sugar and beet sugar are chemically identical," then goes on to add, "Nevertheless, some people who have long experience in making jams and marmalades insist that cane and beet sugars don't behave the same."

However, as a daughter and sister of sugar beet growers, I must take issue with Wolke's description of beets as "misshapen, whitish-brown roots that resemble short, fat carrots." To us, they look beautiful. A good beet crop can represent a farmer's summer's salary.

Which brings us to vested interests and whom to believe. "The manufacturers? They want to sell things and aren't always truthful, though they know more about their product than anybody. The government? I think the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] and FDA [Food and Drug Administration] are trying to do their best for food safety, but I also know that they are under lots of pressure from the meat, dairy and sugar industry."

Ah, the necessary, probing objectivity of the scientist.

Just ask Bob

Wolke's latter-day career as an author isn't truly a departure from where he dreamed he'd be. He got a chemistry set when he was 12 and was hooked, but from 8 to 10 he had been the publisher, editor and writer for his own newspaper. He'd line his page into columns, then type in stories on his dad's old Underwood.

"I had a circulation of one," he says. Himself.

His circulation has expanded considerably, and he now has more than an inkling of what it takes to sell books. Though there may be inspirational photos of Einstein over his desk, his first trade book (he's also written two textbooks) got its biggest bump in sales when he was on shock jock Howard Stern's radio show. Stern's first question -- no surprise -- was about college professors and coeds.

As "Dr. Robert L. Wolke," he was once in the "Guinness Book of Records" for some research he and his graduate students did on discovering the radioactive isotope with the longest half-life.

After all, this is a guy whose home office gives equal play to his James Beard medal, a photo of his original, dingy lab at the University of Pittsburgh and a framed copy of the column about teacher evaluation in the University Times faculty- staff newspaper that got him fired from his administrative job at Pitt. Tenured, he returned to teaching for a year, then retired. "It's the best thing that ever happened to me because it allowed me to write full time," he says.

For now, Wolke claims he's "coasting" with no deadline for another book, but he has work to do.

He was in Washington recently to promote "What Einstein Told His Cook" at a book and author dinner at the National Press Club. The creative chef drew the five-course menu from his wife's recipes but applied scientific names. An assortment of artisan cheeses were described as "Coagulated Curds, Rennet & Live Molds" and roast loin of lamb in natural gravy was portrayed as "Myoglobin in a Calcium Phosphate Collagen Reduction."

Meanwhile, his e-mails piled up. "I've got 130 to answer," he says.

And he will. Any convert to Bob Wolke's magic of molecules will probably never stop wondering -- and asking -- how things work in the kitchen.

Recipes & Info:

Mocha Cocoa Frosting

Blueberry Blue Corn Pancakes

Devil's Food Cupcakes

Wine, or wine not?

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