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The chemistry of good cooks

Meals for my summer job meant more than pancakes. I needed help.

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Following my sophomore year of college, an older woman hired me to be a housekeeper at her summer cottage on Lake Michigan. Miss Bartow had been one of the first American women to earn a doctorate in chemistry and had taught that subject at the University of Illinois. Every summer she traveled north to Michigan.

While studying for final exams, I daydreamed about her private beach, until suddenly other thoughts rippled through my mind. Housekeepers must cook; Miss Bartow would expect me to produce three meals a day. I scribbled a note to her explaining that I only knew how to make pancakes, chocolate chip cookies, and grilled cheese sandwiches, but I would try to cook what she liked.

Miss Bartow wrote back, "You're a geologist; cooking is like chemistry."

Mostly what I could remember from geochemistry was how ions shared their electrical charges in order to create stable situations. While writing out the chemical formula for the mineral pyrite (FeS2), my professor had pointed out that when the iron and sulfur bonded, their charges balanced each other.

I felt like a negative ion desperately seeking a positive ion. But too soon, the big day came, and I moved to the cottage.

Miss Bartow handed me "The Joy of Cooking." "Study this, and you'll learn to cook."

Sitting on my beach towel, I read her cookbook, but the mass of recipes was overwhelming and the symbols confusing. Even worse, to create a dish, such as cabbage rolls, I had to flip to various sections in order to reference the techniques necessary.

I stared at the waves. I needed easy recipes for main dishes, and I needed them now.


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