Nov 23, 2010

What's Cooking in College?

Don’t be surprised if your visiting undergrad takes more than a passing interest in what goes on in the kitchen this Thanksgiving. The Boston Globe reports that the hottest course at Harvard this fall is the Science of the Physical Universe 27, also known as Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science.

According to the Globe, “The class has drawn unprecedented interest.” About 300 students were selected by lottery from among 700 who applied, some of whom wrote essays and appeals to further their chances of admission.

Offered through Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the class meets twice per week. On Thursdays, physics professor David Weitz or applied math professor Michael Brenner lectures on the scientific principles. The following Tuesday, a guest chef demonstrates how those principles provide the foundation for cooking.

Lab projects have included molten chocolate cake under the guise of studying heat diffusion, and ceviche and ricotta cheese as “illustrations of protein denaturation and aggregation.” At the end of class, experiments are enthusiastically consumed.

In December, students will get to present group projects at a science fair to be judged by some of Boston’s most famous chefs. The winning group gets a free trip to Barcelona, to work on a project with the Alicia Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to food and science.

But Harvard isn’t the only major university catering to student interest in food. At Stanford, students are picked by lottery for classes in cooking and wine tasting offered through the French Department. Not to be outdone, the Stanford German Department also offers a one-credit cooking class titled Kuche Mitt, and some years the Spanish Department provides an introduction to Spanish cooking.

Nearer to home, Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia, offers a “Science of Cooking” class that while designed for non-science majors, examines such topics as why egg whites foam better in a copper bowl. Field trips to restaurants or vineyards and an extended study program in Sienna, Italy are among the more interesting elements of the class.

And students at Carnegie Mellon University may sign up for a "Kitchen Chemistry" class where they “explore the science of molecular gastronomy through lectures and demos.” Offered in separate sections for science and non-science majors, lectures and labs cover a variety of food products and cooking techniques. For the final exam, students are required to create original recipes for edible dishes, which recently included dessert sushi, vegan chocolate cake, and a gruyere soufflé.

Sorry, mom. Turkey with all the trimmings just isn’t going to have the same appeal.

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