Book Review: “What Einstein Told His Cook”

As a mother of two young children, I rarely have the time, unless I’m half-asleep anyway, to read a book. It may take me a month or two to finish, but slow and steady is better than nothing at all! A few months ago I came across a book at a used book stand in my neighborhood titled, “What Einstein Told His Cook.” It piqued my interest, not only as a foodie at heart, but also my allure to the world of science.

I was expecting the language to be a bit dry at times, but I was pleasantly surprised how well the author, Robert L. Wolke, imparted such humor into complicated matters of food chemistry. It made me stop and think how much more I would have loved high school chemistry had I had the opportunity to work with a more enthusiastic and witty personality! But I suppose that goes with any subject in school, no?

“What Einstein Told His Cook,” delves into subjects, such as the process of refining sugar (you may be surprised to learn that “raw” sugar sold in organic and health sections of most supermarkets, really is still refined), the most efficient way in which to squeeze the most juice out of a lemon, and why you can’t use a liquid measuring cup to accurately measure dry ingredients.  There are some wonderful recipes dispersed throughout the book, ranging from a champagne gelatin dessert and homemade gravlax, to an autumn mushroom pie and ricotta fritters.

By all means, if you are interested in learning why various chemicals in your kitchen react in certain ways, or are simply curious to know how your microwave works to heat food on a molecular level, this book is a must-read. I know I enjoyed it!

“Chew On This”

I thoroughly enjoy browsing through a second-hand sale. You truly never know what you will stumble upon. A couple of weekends ago, my local senior community center had a spring bazaar, selling donated clothing, jewelry, housewares, and, my favorite, books. I was lucky enough to score two books which piqued my interest.  Chew On This: everything you don’t want to know about fast food, a New York Times bestseller, written by investigative journalist, Eric Schlosser, and Charles Wilson, was a book that for a while I had good intentions to read, but never seemed to get around to it. And lo and behold, there it sat on the 50¢ paperback table. I picked it up, paid for it, and happily began to read about the history of fast food in America, including many details most consumers probably wouldn’t want to learn.

It baffles me why more people on this planet are not interested in where their food comes from. Unless you are living in poverty, whether in a poor country or a rich one, like the U.S., in which case it’s a struggle just to put any type of food in your belly, there isn’t any good excuse not to think about what you are ingesting. Most people are more concerned about what they exhibit to the world externally: clothing, shoes, bags, jewels, cars, and homes. But what about the fuel you are providing your body? Have you stopped to think about the impact of feeding yourself, or your children, with the highly processed foods most fast food companies offer? Food determines how healthy you will be in your lifetime, and how long or short your life on this planet will be, and Chew On This helps its readers to examine these topics in much more detail than one normally considers on a day-to-day basis.

An excerpt from the book inquires the following:

“So why is it that most people don’t think about fast food and don’t know much about it?…. The simple answer is this: the companies that sell fast food don’t want you to think about it. They don’t want you to know where it comes from and how it’s made. They just want you to buy it… Have you ever seen a fast-food ad that shows the factories where French fries are made? Ever seen a fast-food ad that shows the slaughterhouses where cattle are turned into ground beef?…Ever seen an ad that shows overweight, unhealthy kids stuffing their faces with greasy fries at a fast-food restaurant?”¹

Most likely you will answer, “No,” to all these questions. But perhaps with a few minutes of research you might think twice before quickly dashing in to order an extra value meal to go.

Chew On This delves into the history of fast food in America. What began as an innocent, all-American dream, turning a profit on hamburgers and French fries from an ox-cart in 1885, turned into one of the most lucrative, exploitative businesses known throughout the world today. A majority of the earth’s fatal diseases are brought on by atrocious fast-food diets, as are a majority of the earth’s carbon emissions, and senseless treatment of animals and slaughter house employees.² Americans spent approximately $6 billion on fast food in 1970, and by 2006, right before this book was published, they spent $142 billion dollars.

“Americans now spend more money on fast food than on college education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars.”

Have you ever wondered why companies appeal to children so vehemently? Cartoon character mascots, toys, and advertisements are all aimed at young children because a child who brings an adult or two along with them to eat makes that many more customers, and once you capture a consumer during childhood, there’s a much greater chance you will maintain that customer, and their offspring, throughout their lifetimes.

Not only are children exploited as customers; they are exploited as employees, as well. Fast food companies have perfected a model of inexpensive, easily manipulated, and highly disposable laborers who will work for numerous hours and continuous shifts for extremely low wages.

While reading this book, I came across way more information than I cared to know regarding fast food French fry processes, such as McD’s fries, which for decades were cooked in beef fat, and are now “naturally flavored” with man-made additives.  And that a company, like McDonald’s, is the number one processor of not only potatoes in this county, but beef, chicken, and, yes, even toys.³

Have you ever stopped to imagine the hefty costs on life and land that are incurred in order to produce enough meat (beef and chicken) to meet the demands of international fast food companies? For those of you unaware, here’s a brief description. One of the nation’s largest meatpacking plants runs a pair of enormous feedlots that supplies the slaughterhouse with cattle. Each feedlot, containing close to 100,000 cattle, is described in Chew On This as “…a sea of cattle, mooing, moving mass of brown and white fur that goes on for acres.” Can you imagine how awful these poor creatures live their short existence on this planet before they are slaughtered? I know it’s difficult to hear, and even harder to actually view with your own eyes, but avoiding the reality doesn’t make it go away. Cows were not intended to be fed with grains and recycled animal parts, like factory farm cattle are fed. They were intended to graze the open fields, chewing on grass.

You probably have some knowledge of the bacteria E.coli 0157:H7, particularly since its recent outbreak in Europe has been in the news. E. coli is a bacterium that can cause serious food poisoning and even death. Because factory farm cattle are not fed on grass, the E. coli baterium is able to proliferate within the cattle’s stomachs.  Now consider that a single fast food hamburger can contain meat from hundreds or even thousands of different cattle which means that a single animal infected with E. coli 0157: H7 can contaminate up to 32,000 pounds of ground beef. This helps to explain how easily infections from this seriously fatal bacteria can become widespread.  (I’m not even going to bother going into the atrocities of raising factory chickens or pigs. If you would like to learn more, please read the book, or watch, Food Incorporated.)

Chew On This is an informative read to those who have no prior knowledge of the fast food industry, as well as to those who are ahead of the curve. If you take nothing else away from reading the book other than the history of fast food in America, so be it. But perhaps you may be inspired, or moved to inspire someone else to think twice before ordering that next Happy Meal.

¹ Schlosser, Eric and Charles Wilson. Chew On This: everything you don’t want to know about fast food. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. p 10

²  Schlosser, Eric and Charles Wilson. Chew On This: everything you don’t want to know about fast food. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. p 182-191

³   Schlosser, Eric and Charles Wilson. Chew On This: everything you don’t want to know about fast food. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. p 59, 96, 161, 172,