Science and Cooking at Harvard SEAS, 2015!

It’s been a long while, so I decided it was high time to hang out in lecture hall C of Harvard’s Science Center for the opening lecture featuring Harold McGee and Dave Arnold last night.  Overall reaction?  I still have a nerd crush on Dave Arnold.  He’s like a puppy when it comes to food science and related interests.  How can anyone not like him?

Before the lecture started, the audience was handed plastic packets filled with sugar-related items.

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What the?

I don’t eat a lot of sugar anymore!

Confusion ensued.

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When the lecture started, Harvard professor Michael Brenner welcomed us to the start of year 6 of the program.  Six years?  Already?  Whoa.

Harold let Dave have the floor first, and Dave explained our little presents.

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It started with this pill.  Dave said it was going to taste like rabbit cages but he wanted us to thoroughly chew about 1/3 of the pill.  Dave and Harold participated so that we didn’t feel like suckers on the receiving end of a bad prank.  (At the same time, Dave totally recommended this as a prank.)

The pill inhibits your ability to taste sugar.  So we were then instructed to taste a strawberry, some sugar, a vanilla wafer, etc.  I don’t think I chewed my pill thoroughly enough.  While my sense of taste was a little off (the pill really does taste like stale rabbit hay) and my mouth felt weird, I could still taste sweetness fairly correctly.

I considered a repeat trial at home, but chewing the pill really isn’t what I’d call fun.  I’d rather experiment with magic fruit.

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Overall takeaways from the lecture, not in any particular order:

Arnold’s Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) is launching the first food museum with exhibits you can eat and interact with.  The building will be in Brooklyn and will hopefully open in October.  I don’t remember what the exhibits will be about.  I remember something about MSG.  I also remember something about smells and how a peach smells more like peach if there’s a little bit of poop smell in there.

Harold McGee basically ripped to shreds sites like IBM Chef Watson and Foodpairing.  But he did it very nicely.  I think Harold is probably one of the nicest sounding people on earth.  He also made comments that we should be weary of big headline food studies.  Sadly, such studies kind of perpetuate themselves on the internet.  For example, there’s the idea that antimicrobial compounds concentrated in spices reduce the incidence of food-borne disease.  Harold pointed out the weaknesses of this study in his response article for Nature called “in victu veritas.”  Sadly, the study in question gets way more citations that Harold’s article… like 40x more citations.

Personally, I will say that IBM Chef Watson doesn’t work, regardless of the Bon Appetit promotion it got.  It’s a nice idea.  But I don’t know what their formulas are based off of.  Their quantities tend to be really off.  And, I would never spend money on Foodpairing for membership.

(Note – Foodpairing works on foods that have similar volatile compounds.  It’s not based on experience or history.  I am not against something like The Food Bible, which draws from chef experience.  Actually, I love The Food Bible.  It’s a great reference for someone who doesn’t have a whole lot of flavor experience… which is to say that I grew up on Cantonese cooking and tend to feel outside of my comfort range if I’m putting something together on my own.)

It was a good night, and I’m glad I made it to the lecture.  Full list of guests is listed in the reference links.

I really want to see Jim Lahey’s presentation, but, ironically, I’ll be in NYC that night.

PS.  If you want to read my older SEAS science and cooking notes, head over to

Reference Links:

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