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March 6, 2008

Home Cooking for Hackers


Raspberry gumdrops with ant venom. Image: MagicSafire.

"I think of cooking as hacking," says Californian computer programmer Marc Powell, who led a 'Kitchen Hack Lab' demonstration at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego this week.

In the kitchen, we're all amateur chemists. Protein, carbohydrate, fat and water react to changes in pressure and temperature during cooking. Just as a hardware hacker adapts an electronic device to a new purpose, a food hacker recombines ingredients in unconventional ways.

Powell wants to bring "the red-headed stepchild of molecular gastronomy" to the masses. At Unicorn Precinct XIII in San Francisco, he hosts a 'collaborative supper club'. Guests can sample blood ice cream, chocolate monkfish liver and savoury bubble tea with squid ink tapioca pearls (http://up13.org).

A chemical logic underpins Powell's odd blend of ingredients: one batch of gumdrops used raspberry, rum and ant venom because they all contain derivatives of formic acid, which has a strong, tangy taste.

After the dot-com bust, Powell trained in the kitchen of Heston Blumenthal, head chef of The Fat Duck in Berkshire, UK. Blumenthal founded his own research laboratory to refine such culinary techniques as sous vide, or slow cooking in vacuum-sealed bags. In recent years, a handful of molecular chefs — including Ferrán Adria at Spain's El Bulli and Homaru Cantu at Moto in Chicago, Illinois — have used liquid nitrogen, lasers and inkjet printers to expand the range of possible flavours and textures.

Ultramodern kitchen experimentation has largely bypassed the amateur because of the high cost of equipment, such as rotary evaporators or an 'anti-griddle' that chills to -34 °C. But vacuum-sealers and smoking guns are relatively cheap and, as food scientists such as Harold McGee and Hervé This have shown, there is also room for innovation using standard ingredients and appliances.

What sets Powell apart is his home-grown approach. He invites strangers to bring their own ingredients into his kitchen and hack alongside him. "I think food cooked at home is always better than what's cooked in a restaurant," he says.

Plus, unlike many restaurant chefs who keep their recipes secret, Powell encourages 'open-source recipe development' (http://wiki.foodhacking.com). For when inspiration fails, his website program (http://deliciouscorpse.com) generates random recipes — such as 'grub-injected wasp caviar with salt-baked spider bun' — that can be tailored to the contents of your larder.

It remains to be seen whether the invention of such new dishes, as the French epicure Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in 1825, "does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star".

—Jascha Hoffman
Nature 452, 32-33 (6 March 2008)

March 9, 2008



Beaufort Castle after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.
Ahmed Mantash/Associated Press

By Ron Leshem.
Translated by Evan Fallenberg.
360 pp. Delacorte Press. $24.

Beaufort Castle, built by crusaders on a mountaintop in what is now southern Lebanon, passed through many hands before being captured from the P.L.O. by invading Israeli troops in 1982. In this gritty first novel, the young Israeli journalist Ron Leshem imagines the tedium and terror of a small group of soldiers inside the fortress walls in the months leading up to the Israeli Army’s withdrawal in 2000.

The story is told by Liraz Liberti, an impulsive 21-year-old Sephardic officer who has been put in charge of the little band. He recalls “the feel of the wind up there, the taste of the schnitzel, and the smell of Lysol,” as well as the “five-foot-tall wet thistles that bury you.” It is through Liraz that we meet the 13 “human puppies” in his squad, young men without combat experience who spend their time inventing slang and making “killer cheese toasts with pesto.”

The unit’s tour of duty feels a bit like Zionist summer camp until the soldiers are shelled during a predawn ambush. Liraz doesn’t cope well on the battlefield: when a roadside mine explodes in the face of his bomb expert, Liraz berates the attending medic, then collapses in shock while the corpse is loaded onto a stretcher.

As Israeli public opinion turns against the war and soldiers along the front lines are picked off by enemy fire, the mission begins to seem increasingly futile. Rather than preventing Hezbollah from raiding the Israeli border, the fort has become just another target. “We sit up here at Beaufort,” the medic explains, “disconnected from everything, drawing rockets and mortar shells and explosive devices, endangering our lives, just so we can continue sitting at Beaufort.”

What began as a game of capture the flag has become a sort of Masada. Even after Liraz learns that Israel never meant to take the mountain in the first place, he remains committed to defending it. But this isn’t because he buys the “embarrassing mix of Zionism and kitsch” that passes for patriotism at Beaufort; it’s because his men have risked their lives for him and he wants to do the same for them.

The novel requires some stamina on the part of the reader. The authentic details of gear and slang, drawn from Leshem’s extensive interviews, weigh down the plot. And it’s not easy to tolerate the soldiers’ hunger for easy Orthodox girls, their scorn for dovish Israeli reporters and their lack of interest in the Lebanese whose lives have been disrupted by the fighting. But Liraz has a certain vulnerable charm, and this is what pulls the reader through.

When “Beaufort” was first published in Hebrew, the Israeli soldiers who read it might have paid scant attention to its prediction that they would eventually return to Lebanon. The enemy, Leshem’s narrator argues, will “take a soldier hostage, commandeer a jeep at the border fence, bombard some northern settlement with mortar shells. ... We’ll march in there, ... pass from house to house.” This is essentially what happened when war broke out again in the summer of 2006.

Reading the novel now, in Evan Fallenberg’s expert translation, as Israel is under pressure to go back into Gaza, one is reminded how easily an army can find itself trapped in enemy territory, sunk, as one general puts it to Liraz, “deep in tactics, without strategies.”

Jascha Hoffman has written for The Boston Globe and Nature as well as The Times.

[full text at nytimes.com]

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