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Mike Riley

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Cooking for Geeks Book Review

July 31, 2010

While O'Reilly is known for their technical programming titles, they occasionally publish a book that's tangentially outside of their typical content sandbox. Some of these experiments turn out to be highly entertaining and informative surprises (such as John Graham-Cumming excellent Geek Atlas), while others don't quite hit the intended mark. Where does Jeff Potter's Cooking for Geeks land? Read on to find out.The book's seven chapters and various passages carry the phraseology of the computer coder. The first three, Hello, Kitchen!, Initializing the Kitchen and Choosing Your Inputs: Flavors and Ingredients carry obvious connotations. The next three chapters on Time and Temperature: Cooking's Primary Variables, Air: Baking's Key Variable and Chapter 6's Playing with Chemicals delve more deeply into the science of how such variables affect the final editable product. Indeed, the bulk of the book could have been called "Food Science and You" given the fact that there are far more pages dedicated to the physical and chemical processes that play such crucial roles in the the art of cooking. The closing chapter, Fun with Hardware, focuses predominantly on the sous vide cooking technique (similar to slow cooking but with less temperature variance). The book is filled with photos and very helpful illustrations, some of which are pure programmer, such as a decision tree for "how to cook a pizza".

Interviews are interspersed throughout the chapters following educational topics ranging from caramelization to knife sharpening. Some of the interviewees are well-known tech luminaries who also enjoy cooking on the side (Nathan Myhrvold on modernist cuisine), while others are tech journalists (Xeni Jardin on cultural variety) and TV celebrities (Adam Savage on the fun of cooking eggs). The interviews I found most interesting were the scientists and academics like Doug Powell, Associate Professor at KSU's Department of Diagnostic Medicine and Pathobiology, who presented their conclusions based on objective scientific foundations (and a few colorful anecdotes, such as those posted on Dr. Powell's barfblog.com weblog), and with people like Jeff Varasano, a C++ programmer turned Pizzeria entrepreneur. The book concludes with an appendix on various food allergies, an afterword on reaffirming the book's purpose (i.e., why the author believes cooking and the geek go hand in hand), and a one page summary of kitchen tips.

Some of the topics I had hoped would be in the book didn't make this edition. Subjects like "hacking food" (the optimal dietary food recipe mix for people who push their minds to the limit while writing their most elegant algorithms during long shamanic coding sprints), "tech food" (I have read stories of chefs using inkjet printers to apply edible ink toppings to food surfaces; how about an appendix on constructing your own Makezine-style home made hardware hacks to print your own photos onto white cake frosting) and "future food" (what technological innovations in farming and food science will change the way we nourish humanity on a planet inhabited by 10 billion human beings? Will Soylent Green really be made out of people?) Perhaps these and other reader suggestions can be further explored in a sequel.

In summary, Cooking for Geeks is an obvious must-have book choice for any technical enthusiast who also enjoys the culinary arts. For folks like myself who the book's author categorizes in the "Healthy" cooking style (the other classifications being Giving, Methodical, Innovative and Competitive), I would have preferred more science and measurements and less subjective assessments. I know there is a fine line between making the book informative and exciting versus educational and dull, but it would have been way cool to have seen more on the nutritional breakdown of the various recipes suggested throughout the book. Calories, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, sodium, suggested serving sizes, suggested complimentary dishes to fulfill nutritional targets, etc, would have kept Cooking for Geeks in the kitchen. For me, Cooking for Geeks is a book that will most likely be summoned the next time I have the chance to show it off when fellow tech enthusiasts with a penchant for eating come to call.

Title: Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food Author: Jeff Potter Publisher: O'Reilly Media ISBN: 978-0-596-80588-3 Pages: 432 Price: $34.99 US

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