March Books


Hervé This "Molecular Gastronomy"

Larry Gonick "The Cartoon History of the Universe III"


Hervé This "Molecular Gastronomy"

Larry Gonick "The Cartoon History of the Universe III"

Denise Nichols "Freshwater Road"*

Dava Sobel "The Planets"*

Terry Pratchett "Monstrous Regiment"*


*Borrowed from Newark Free Library


I am surprised at how few books I purchased last month. Also how few I remember actually reading. March was a busy month as the semester hit full steam ending with the American Chemical Society meeting during Spring Break. My state of convalescence meant that I often crashed exhausted with little energy for anything very much.

The best book I read last month has to be Hervé This's "Molecular Gastronomy". Consisting of short (3 – 4 page) essays on food research topics, this book inspires. The essays make great introduction to both concepts and experimental design of food science. A random example is Chapter 5, which discusses the maxim that gnocchi are done when they floating on the surface of their cooking water. The chapter is divided into three sections, that can roughly summarized as: Introduction, Experimental, Results & Conclusion.

Quoting from the experimental ("Denser, on Average") section of Chapter 5:

"Let us analyze the problem for classic gnocchi, which are made of potato, flour, and egg. This dough preserves its form in the course of cooking because the egg coagulates on contact with the boiling water, the temperature being higher than 54 C (154 F). The potato has been cooked beforehand, with the result that the starch granules that fill its cells have swelled up. As for the flour, it is composed of starch granules and gluten: the latter is made of proteins, which with the kneading of the dough form a network that embeds the starch granules in the cellular structure of the potato. The starch contained in flour, like that of the potato, is insoluble when cold, but in hot water the suddenly porous starch granules absorb the water molecules.

This mechanism explains the swelling of gnocchi during cooking. And because the density of the starch is greater than that of water (when flour is mixed with water it falls to the bottom of the container), the total density of the gnocchi diminishes, approaching —without ever quite reaching —that of the water. Why, then, do gnocchi wind up floating on the surface? It must be that some substance whose density is lower than that of water, either air or steam, is incorporated with it in the form of bubbles. What sort of experiment would determine which one?"

This was a random example of 101 chapters discussing everything from "The Terriors of Alsace" to "Playing with Texture". This book is a great opportunity for my students. They could be assigned an appropriate chapter to study both food chemistry concepts and experimental design. I am keen to try this in my food chemistry course next semester.

"Freshwater Road" deserves an honorable mention. A coming of age tale of a rich northern African-American, who helps out with the Freedom Summer register to vote campaign in Mississippi. I thoroughly enjoyed the discoveries the young heroine makes about rural southern black life, even though it is still jarring and shocking to remember that Americans were deliberately disenfranchised. This would be a great book for young adult readers (16 – 24 year olds) to be introduced to Civil Right's issues.

Larry Gonick and Terry Pratchett continue to delight, as discussed in earlier "Books of the Month" entries.

Dava Sobel's "The Planets" was disappointing given her excellent previous books; "Longitude" and "Galileo's Daughter". Not least because, in "The Planets", she allows the Christian creation myth as much credit as, what she calls the science creation story, the Big Bang. It was interesting to read how the different planets, moon and sun have represented in art and throughout history.