The No Recipe Man: Let’s get physical


Posted by in December's Magazine

Tom Wheeler 

When I was little, I was fascinated by physics – though admittedly I didn’t know it at the time, or for quite a while after. Specifically, what intrigued me was how things worked and, just as importantly, why. Why did the tide go in and out? What were all those shiny things in the sky, and what was holding them up when almost everything else eventually seemed to fall down? How could my parents’ car move so fast without any of us pedalling? (I gathered it had something to do with the stinky stuff they pumped into the car occasionally, but if anything that only added to the mystery.) How could Paul Daniels saw someone in half but fix them afterwards? (At least I found out a satisfactory answer to that one: “That’s magic!”)

Not unreasonably, I imagined that once I got to Big School, I’d soon find out the answers to all these questions and more. The reality was far more mundane and distinctly confusing. Lessons always seemed to focus on the detail – shapes of valleys, types of rock, noble gases and simultaneous equations – with little attempt to link this to the more fundamental questions that had piqued my interest in the first place. If anyone asked about anything broader or more existential, this was casually referred up the line to the big dude in the sky, whose approval we were expected to seek every morning at assembly by singing bad songs badly in his general direction. It’s fair to say I wasn’t entirely convinced.

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Will Hay – strikingly similar to Tom’s physics teacher

This reductive approach to teaching reached its soul-sapping nadir in physics lessons. If you’ve ever wondered how best to suck every drop of curiosity from a classroom of precocious teenagers, may I recommend asking a hundred-year-old man in half-moon glasses to dictate interminable passages about semi-conductors in a low Geordie monotone. We forgot this information  

The upshot of this was that I came to dissociate the physics I was taught at school from the big questions of time, space and existence that had so intrigued me. When the time came to make such decisions, I unhesitatingly chose to specialise in arts over sciences, by process of elimination as much as anything. This hasn’t served me too badly overall – I doubt I’d have found my way into the glamorous, lavishly remunerated world of food columnism without it – but I do sometimes wonder what direction I might have taken had I been able to appreciate the connection between what I was being taught and what I wanted to know.

As an adult, and as the memories of those interminable physics lessons began to fade a little, my curiosity gradually returned, aided by the likes of Marcus du Sautoy and Brian Cox demonstrating on TV that scientific knowledge and effective communication skills needn’t be mutually exclusive. I’d even go so far as to say that I’m genuinely interested in physics again, even if my younger self would scoff at the notion. And while my knowledge of the subject might be largely homespun and wildly incomplete, I reckon it’s been essential to me becoming a half-decent cook. 

The only fundamental question was this: if time is supposed to be a constant, how come time slows down dramatically during double physics on a Tuesday?

Long-buried recollections around heat transfer come back to me when deciding how to cook two steaks of differing thickness, even if the instructions on the packet would direct me, entirely wrongly, to treat them identically. Knowing that water can’t exceed 100°C while remaining liquid is unlikely to win me any science prizes; but applying that knowledge to regulate cooking temperature – for instance, surrounding a terrine with water before placing it in the oven, then topping up the water throughout the cooking process – can be the difference between a triumphant end product and a ruined one. The knowledge that water will evaporate more quickly when exposed to higher temperatures lets me rapidly reduce a thin, insipid sauce into a rich, concentrated one; and my admittedly vague appreciation of what happens when particles collide at high speed reminds me to lift the meat and veg out of the sauce before I do so.

I’d respectfully suggest that an evening of binge-watching science documentaries will do your cooking far more good than spending the same time poring over cookbooks and dutifully following the recipes within. The knowledge gained, and/or memories rekindled, can have a surprising range of applications next time you’re staring at an unsatisfactory-looking pot of food and wondering how on earth you’re going to sort it out. By contrast, learning by rote may have been a popular technique in certain school science departments of the early ‘90s; but it’s liable to leave you feeling much the same way about cooking as I used to feel as I trudged towards those double physics lessons. And I honestly wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

Twitter: @norecipeman

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