Thursday, April 9, 2015

Old Wives' Tales in the Kitchen

Charlotte Canelli is the library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Charlotte's column in the April 9, 2015 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

“Feed a fever, starve a cold.”  I can never remember the correct version of this advice when I actually have a cold or a fever. Am I supposed to feed the fever or the cold?  When I’m sick and want a warm bowl of macaroni and cheese or a cold cup of sherbet, is this bad or is it good?
Guess what? It doesn’t matter because that’s not how the real old wives tale goes, anyway.

The real saying is “Feed a cold, stave a fever.”  So, if you feed a cold, you’ll ward off a fever (or something worse) by strengthening your immune system. This makes perfect sense. Remember next time you are sick, reach for your favorite chicken soup because experts say that the warmth, and the nutrition, simply cannot hurt but can actually help.
These beliefs and myths have been handed down for generations. Some of the traditions that were handed down to me included freezing ice cubes by beginning with hot water. Or keeping anything with mayonnaise in the refrigerator until the very last moment and tossing the leftovers out. And, of course, I was taught never to go outside in the cold with wet hair.
Some of these myths are simply false. Mayonnaise is acidic and actually helps to keep food from spoiling if it is kept cool. Mayonnaise or not, food left out should be returned to the refrigerator as quickly as possible. Wet hair in the cold? Scientists believe there is no connection between wet hair, cold air, and catching a cold.
That thing about ice cubes? Starting with very hot water might make some sense. Apparently, there’s an evaporation thing happening with the hot water in the freezer. You really need to start with very hot water in order for it to steam up and evaporate. Through evaporation, the overall mass of water actually decreases and freezes faster. Perhaps this is a miniscule “faster” but I spent years filling my ice cube trays with hot water and I’m happy to know that it might have worked.
Some old wives’ tales have far less basis in reality.  If they sound a bit far-fetched, they probably are. “If an apple bursts in the oven while baking, good news is on the way for the cook.”  Or “Eggs that crack while boiling are a sign that visitors are expected.”
Or this. “When rice forms a ring around the pot while cooking, the cook will become rich.” I’m not rich and I’ve certainly had that ring happen in my pot.
My husband Gerry, a chemist by profession, recently read “What Einstein Told His Cook” by Robert L. Wolke and he enjoyed it immensely, sharing bits and pieces with me whenever he could. In my librarian-wife way, I decided to find out if Wolke had written other books. And, of course, he has.
Wolke’s books are full of scientific answers to everyday questions – like the old wives’ tales we learned when we were young. Wolke has some impressive credentials for explaining some of life’s more interesting questions: a PhD in nuclear chemistry from Cornell and a career teaching chemistry at the University of Pittsburg.  He also taught Spanish at universities in Spanish-speaking countries (presumably to non-natives.) In addition, he is a writer, a lecturer, a researcher, and a food columnist. With a reported great sense of humor, and a scientific background to match, he is the Bill Nye of the kitchen. He’s been called, as a matter of fact, the Sci-Fry Guy. (Some of Wolfe’s books have been translated into 20 languages.)
Wolke began explaining science in understandable language (think Science for Non-Science Majors) in his first book written in 1997, “What Einstein Didn’t Know: Scientific Answers to Everyday Questions.”  A revised and expanded edition was just published in 2014, 17 years later. In it, you’ll find explanations of why warm beer goes flat and how puffed rice is made. He followed with a sequel, “What Einstein Told His Barber” in 2000. Reading it, we learn just why WintOGreen Lifesavers make flashes of light. (You know you’ve tried it. Dark closet. Roll of Lifesavers. Gnashing teeth.) How about that urban legend that toilets flush clockwise in the southern hemisphere?  You’ll have to read the book to find out the fact or fiction behind it.
From 1998 to 2007, Robert Wolke wrote a column for the Washington Post titled “Food 101.” In it, he included all the advice and tidbits he shares in his next three books that can be described as “kitchen science explained: “What Einstein Told His Cook,” and What Einstein Told His Cook 2.” Both books include simple indexes which come in handy when you are trying to remember if adding potatoes to a too-salty soup will help. (Wolke claims there is no scientific evidence that it works.) In the first book kitchen science book (2002), Wolke explains the science behind the best way to store kitchen knives or whether or not to keep the lid on your pot of boiling water. He includes a few non-fail recipes for Devil’s Food Cupcakes and lump-less gravy. The sequel published in 2005, or the “further adventures,” credit his wife, Marlene Parrish for the recipes included. In 2012, Wolke and his wife published a third kitchen book, “What Einstein Kept Under His Hat.”
So next time you want to know how to keep your soda from going flat, or have an urge to find out the science behind a sonic boom, spend an evening or two reading one of Wolke’s books. You’ll certain learn and chuckle at the same time.