Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/September 1893/Scientific Cooking



By Miss M. A. BOLAND,


THE general interpretation of the colloquial use of the word scientific as applied to cooking is that manner of making dishes which is carried out according to some exact method, which has been proved by experiment to be correct or satisfactory. This is well as far as it goes; but scientific cooking, in order to justly merit the name, should also include: 1. A knowledge of the chemical composition of food materials and food, that a woman may know when she is supplying her family with a diet composed of all those principles, in correct proportion, which are necessary to perfectly nourish the body, and also that she may appreciate that she is not always obliged to buy expensive materials in order to obtain that which is needful and wholesome. 2. A knowledge of the methods of preparing and preserving food, both cooked and uncooked, under such conditions of cleanliness that it shall be free from poisonous or noxious principles. 3. A knowledge of the laws of health, that it may be possible in some measure to determine what constituents and what eatables afford proper material for the maintenance of the body, and under what circumstances of occupation, exercise, and living in general they are most completely utilized.

Upon the subject of the composition of foods there is abundance of valuable literature in English from which much can be learned. Since the days of Baron von Liebig and Count Rumford, who may be said to be the promoters of the "cooking movement," a great deal of scientific investigation as to the chemical composition, nutritive value, and methods of cooking food has been done, and out of this study, in connection with medical research, has sprung the modern school of hygiene, as yet, however, in its infancy. In the works of Parkes, Pavy, Atwater, Foster, Smith, Blythe, and Hassal most valuable information on this subject may be found.

A well-grounded knowledge of the chemistry and physiology of foods is the foundation upon which all good work in cooking must be laid. Through it only can be known and appreciated the reasons which underlie the various processes of preparing food, which, once well understood, form the sure foundation upon which all conscientious and worthy effort should rest. Such knowledge embodies the principles of the subject, and without principles no work can possess lasting educational value.

The second suggestion, methods of preparing and preserving food so that it shall be free from poisonous and harmful substances, indicates the necessity for some knowledge of bacteriology. The various fermentative and putrefactive changes which take place in food substances are caused principally by the growth in them of microscopic forms of plant life known by the general name of micro-organisms.

When micro-organisms grow in masses, as may be seen in the green and yellow molds of bread and cake, they are plainly visible to the naked eye, but to distinguish individuals a microscope of high magnifying power is necessary. The common mildew, the decay of apples, melons, and other fruits, the rot of vegetables, and the decomposition of eggs and meat are due to the transforming power of these invisible agents. One of the most common and best known is yeast, which has been more studied and is probably better understood than any of the ferments. It is frequently mentioned to illustrate the transforming power of these infinitely tiny forms of life. A bit of yeast is like a little mass of seeds, each a single cell; these, when they are placed in a proper medium—in other words, find the surroundings of food, moisture, and warmth necessary for their life—multiply with extraordinary rapidity, using what they require of the food in which they find themselves, decomposing sugar and starch and establishing changes which result in carbonic acid and alcohol as the chief products. We take advantage of the production of carbonic acid by yeast to make our loaves of light and wholesome bread.

Micro-organisms are everywhere: they exist in the earth and the sea; in plants and animals; on the surface of our bodies and in the digestive canal; in cooked and uncooked food; in refuse, particularly animal waste; on our clothing, books, furniture, and in the dust of the atmosphere. Wherever they find suitable food, warmth, and moisture they increase with wonderful rapidity, and, if undisturbed would in time completely transform the object upon which they fall. However, by removing any one of the factors necessary to their growth, they cease to multiply, and under such conditions some species remain inert, some die.

Like other forms of life, micro-organisms by their growth give rise to various products which may be either harmless or harmful. Of the latter may be mentioned noxious gases which pollute the air and poisonous substances which render our food unwholesome. The souring of milk, and the putrefactive changes which, in the presence of heat, so rapidly set in in eggs, meat, oysters, lobsters, crabs, and other albumen-containing foods, are among the results of their transforming power. Perhaps the most important point for us to consider here is, that it is highly probable that these substances just mentioned and others of similar nature often, when apparently good, contain poisonous matter in small quantities, which produces in human beings, when those foods are eaten, grave digestive disturbances. Should the eating of such food be continued for a length of time, or the amount of poisonous matter be large, serious results of illness, or even death, may follow. Instances are on record of fatal cases of poisoning caused by eating oysters too long out of the shell, lobsters not fresh, and other easily putrescible substances.

The object of the bacteriological study of food is not alone to prevent the use of actually poisonous materials, but also to prevent the use of those which are not absolutely good.

Perfect digestion, perfect assimilation, and as a consequence healthful blood can not result from the use of questionable food. If we attempt to consider what constitutes a healthy condition of body we find a very complex subject before us: constitutional peculiarities, manner of dress, surroundings, air, occupation, climate, etc., as well as food, all influence physical development. We find the answer involves too many points to be given simply and directly, but one very essential thing to do certainly lies in the direction of food. The nutritive material for replenishing the blood is made from the food we eat and the air we breathe; it, therefore, is entirely reasonable to claim that the condition of the air breathed and the preparation of the food eaten are of great importance.

Food should be wholesome in itself, prepared in exquisitely clean surroundings by neat hands, and cooked with intelligence. Food prepared by slovenly cooks in slovenly places not only is not aesthetically acceptable, but is neither palatable nor wholesome, and often contains ptomaines, toxines,[1] or other poisonous matter the results of changes of a dangerous character, or it may be contaminated with the bacteria of disease. When we know that micro-organisms are the primary cause of many kinds of fermentation, that all forms of food are excellent material for them upon which to thrive, that instances are on record in which poisons have been isolated from food which has caused sickness, it may be repeated that it is entirely possible that food kept in questionable places and prepared in an uncleanly manner does often contain that which is positively injurious to health.

It is evident that one of the first considerations of a thoughtful and intelligent housekeeper toward securing one condition at least of good health should be absolute cleanliness in all things— that cleanliness which excludes as much as possible all kinds of extraneous ferments from food and its surroundings. We know that micro-organisms are the agents of fermentation; we know the factors necessary to their life, namely, food, warmth, and moisture; deprived of any one of these, their growth is stopped and they become inert, or die. To illustrate, a piece of meat deprived of moisture—that is, dried—is proof against the growth of organisms upon it so long as it remains dry, and it "keeps," as we say—that is, it does not decay; or, it may be hung in an ice-box or frozen as in winter—that is, deprived of warmth—with the same result. It, then, is a possibility to control the multiplication of these forms of life when we understand their modes of existence.

Scientific cooking should include not only the proper construction, so to speak, of eatables, but a knowledge of their constituents both inherent and extraneous, and some understanding of the physical life of human beings. Heretofore, cooking has been done for the most part upon what might be called "haphazard" lines, without any special degree of exactness and with but little actual information as to the nutritive value of the substances dealt with, or of the processes which would render them most palatable and digestible. This manner of conducting the cooking of a home gives mainly two results: (1) a great deal of wretched food, which directly or indirectly affects the health of the family, and (2) an enormous amount of unnecessary waste. The primary consideration is, of course, the one of health. When we recollect that hygienists and medical men hold the opinion that disease does not find lodgment in a sound body, that to be perfectly healthy means no sickness, except from accidents and natural causes, is it not enough to inspire all women to study and master the means which conduce to health and the laws which govern healthy conditions? This point may be illustrated by the fact that pneumonia does not attack healthy persons. Children, the old or enfeebled, and those who are debilitated, are its victims. Pneumonia is a bacterial disease, the germ of which is present in the mouths of about one fifth of all well persons. Exposure to cold, the prolonged use of poor food, or excessive fatigue, any of these may lower the tone of the system to such an extent that its cells and fluids, being out of their normal condition, can no longer resist or overpower the germ of the disease, which, finding lodgment in the tissues of the lungs, produces the malady known as pneumonia. It is on this point, that the cells and fluids of a perfectly healthy body have the power to protect the inner organs from the invasion of bacteria and bacterial products, that we base our strongest argument for more healthful ways of living.

The greatest necessity of life is air, which is supplied to us pure (outside of large cities), without the necessity of effort on our part to procure it. We have only not to interfere with what Nature has given by inclosing it in rooms, or by allowing it to be contaminated with noxious gases or other impurities. The second greatest necessity of life is food, which includes water. Food is the raw material of the body from which it constructs its tissues and repairs them as they wear. It furnishes the elements from which are evolved the forces of the body, such as heat, muscular and nervous energy and other powers; of these, heat is the most important, it being ever required that the constant temperature which the body must always possess to be in a state of health may be maintained. Food also furnishes material for a supply which is stored away in the body for use in emergencies when from accident or other cause nutriment is cut off.

Food is to the body what fuel is to the fire. It and the oxygen of the air are the agents which maintain the life of the system. What can be more worthy our attention than so important a subject?

We all know that some kinds of food are more easily digested than others, and we also know that the same kind of food treated in cooking by different methods varies in digestibility, according to those methods. To illustrate, an egg cooked in such a way that its albumen is coagulated, but tender and jelly-like, not hardened, is a very easily digested food substance; while an egg cooked at a temperature so high that its albumen is rendered tough and tenacious is very difficult of digestion, and it is known that well persons have been made temporarily ill by eating eggs so cooked.

What is true of the egg simply illustrates what is true of nearly all food substances—that is, that the temperature at which they are cooked and the manner in which they treated, as to the time of exposure to heat and their combination with other things, makes all the difference in their digestibility and flavor. This constitutes our second argument for the study of cooking.

If only because we have at best but glimmerings of the complex, intricate, and mysterious processes of the life of the physical human body, should we strive to maintain it in most perfect condition, and endeavor in the clearest lights of modern science to make it indeed a temple for the indwelling of the mind.

It is thought by some students of the subject that crime is a disease; that had the men, who are to-day criminals, been reared under better conditions, of both nourishment for the body and influence for the mind, they might have been worthy, even noble citizens.

Missionaries, both at home and abroad, are beginning to realize that it is of little use to pray with a man until they have fed him. In fact, the first work of the missionary of to-day is to provide the object of his thought with necessary food, clothing, and shelter, and care and relief in sickness. When these are adequate, and not before, is the exercise of the "so-called" religious influences of any avail. This, of course, is nothing more than practical common sense. A man reduced by lack of proper and sufficient nourishment, and surrounded by all the depressing influences of poverty, can not do wise thinking. There is not in his body the blood to send to the brain for use. Where there is no fuel there can be no fire.

It is safe to say, as a general rule, that when a man is well nourished his natural leaning is toward industry. He must have something to do. When a man is healthy and industrious he is a safe citizen. Health and industry united often point the way to ambition, and ambition directed in the right path may lead into vast regions of power and influence.[2]

No richer endowment can be bestowed upon one than a healthy and vigorous physical constitution. The possibility of starting man on the journey of life so equipped rests largely with women. The care of little children falls entirely to them during the time when they most need the greatest amount of wise and intelligent attention in order that they may be started in life with a sound body, which shall be the temple for the sound mind which is to be developed and cultivated later. Specialists of children's diseases claim that the manner in which a child is fed and cared for during the first five years of life determines what he shall be ever after.

I listened last winter to a series of lectures on insanity by a specialist of the subject. In speaking of the different forms of the disease, hallucination, melancholia, acute mania, etc., he said that those forms of disease almost always begin with the inability of the individual to digest food well. He does not eat well, does not sleep well, and after a time becomes what is called "nervous," which is usually nothing more than a malnourished condition of the nervous system; then he drifts into melancholia and finally insanity.

The treatment by Weir Mitchell the noted specialist of such diseases, is what might vulgarly but graphically be called stuffing. His patients are put to bed under the pleasantest and most comfortable conditions of absolute rest and freedom from responsibility, and then they are fed with as much nutritious and wholesome food as they can be made to eat. The results of this treatment have been most gratifying.

What woman with the belief that it was within the bounds of the probable for her to save a member of her family from even the possibility of any form of insanity, would not devote months, even years, to the study of those principles and conditions of life by which robust health may be maintained? It should not be understood that I would imply that bad food is the cause of insanity, but it can be said that we have sufficient proof to lead us to believe that many cases of insanity might have been prevented had the individuals been properly nourished; of course, it must be borne in mind that this means not only the eating of proper food, but its proper and normal assimilation in the body.

It is woman's province to control and manage the household. Whether she does it wisely or unwisely rests with herself. No one else can absolutely fill her place. She should, therefore, study the phases of home affairs with the same application and assiduity that she would give to a difficult problem, which may require weeks, months, even years, to work out, but which in the end must be solved.

A man enters the arena of business with the full purpose of being master of whatever he undertakes. He knows that he must succeed. Reputation, social position, comfort, progress, the happiness of his family, even life itself, may depend upon his efforts. If woman would feel the same responsibility in regard to her home—that she must succeed in making it a peaceable, healthgiving, moral-giving abode, and would never waver until she had accomplished it—we should reach a state of advancement in the understanding of life which, except among some in the cultured classes, is not general to-day. I do not maintain that the study of household science will enable woman to do all this, but such study will help greatly, perhaps more than anything else, toward that end. It is one of the important factors in that result, and if for no other reason than that it will make life for women in the performance of their household duties pleasanter, more satisfactory, sweeter, easier, it is more than worth trying. To work in the dark is ever perplexing; to work in the light of intelligent understanding is one form of happiness.

The study of household science, taken in its full and broad sense, leads into boundless fields of research. The phenomenon of heat, the currents of the air, the life and chemical nature of the products of the earth, the mysterious and complex processes of nutrition, fall almost without mention into such work; the sciences of chemistry, physiology, and bacteriology are its foundation stones; in fact, whatever bears upon the physical life of man is included in it.

Now let us consider by what means the women of to-day and of the future may obtain a scientific education in household affairs. I would suggest, first, schools of domestic science and hygiene in which girls shall be taught the subject on the same educational basis and along the same liberal lines that they are taught other things.

A beginning in this line of work (though not in kind) has been in progress for several years in some cities, notable among them the city of Boston. The subject, however, has been taken up in an elementary way and in one of its branches only—that is, cooking. Cooking was introduced to that city by a woman of wealth and benevolence, through whose influence several school-kitchens were opened and maintained at private expense (borne chiefly by her) for a year, to demonstrate to the school authorities and the public what could be done in that line of education. At the end of the time, in the autumn of 1885, the school board decided to adopt the cooking schools as a part of the public educational system, and now there are eleven such schools in that city. Cooking is also taught at public expense in New York, Milwaukee, Des Moines, Washington, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and in many smaller cities throughout the land. These are for the most part schools in which the making only of dishes is taught. They should be extended to include the study of the sources, composition, and nutritive value of food materials, heat, ventilation, cleaning, serving, and the laws which govern health and disease.

The second method which I would suggest for the extension of our subject is by means of private schools, lectures, and demonstration lessons, by which any person may gain the information which has been suggested should be taught in the public schools. Third, by study and experiment at home, where there is always opportunity for such work. There, by the aid of books and investigation, an educated woman may work out and perfect plans and methods for the management of her home.

Educational and industrial unions, where the products of the culinary skill of women are offered for sale; diet-kitchens, in which wholesome dishes are sold at small price; cooking schools like those in the city of Boston, in which the girls in the public schools are taught methods of cooking; private schools, such as the Boston Cooking School and the New York Cooking School, to which one may go and take one or many lessons in invalid, family, or fancy cooking, and where demonstration lessons are given throughout the year; experimental stations, such as the New England Kitchen in Boston, in which chemical and bacteriological investigations are made upon both cooked and uncooked food, under the supervision of an expert chemist; the Storrs experimental station, in Middletown, Conn., which is a purely scientific school for the investigation of food products and the study of dietaries; Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, in which an admirable course in domestic science is offered to those intending to teach—all these in their different lines are excellent, and all tend toward the same thing, namely, better ways of living.

Mrs. Ellen H. Richards, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the inspirer of the New England Kitchen, and W. O. Atwater, of the National Agricultural Department at Washington, D. C, is the director of the Storrs experimental station. A series of articles written by him and published in the Century Magazine, 1887-'88, are among some of the most valuable contributions (in English) on the subject of food and dietaries that we possess.

Society may be roughly separated into three divisions. In the first are the wealthy and the well-to-do; the second comprises the great and powerful middle classes; and the third is made up of the poor. In the first, the household affairs, for the most part are managed by servants; in the second, by the wives and daughters of the family; and in the third we may say they are not managed at all. If no other than the latter class—the poor—were to be benefited, my plea for the cooking school would have more than ample excuse for being written. Among them, alas I who can least afford it, do we find the greatest amount of waste in cooking, much ignorance in the caring for and buying of food, the most unsanitary surroundings as to pure air and cleanliness, and the greatest amount of sickness resulting from bad living.

The following item alone gives one a glimpse of the misery among the poor: In the city of Baltimore, during the year 1891, in a single hospital thirty-three thousand patients were treated in its free dispensary, and in the same city for the same year 81,250,000 spent in public charity through the various charitable organizations and societies for the relief of the poor.

When we bear in mind that statistics of hygiene show that at least seven tenths of all forms of illness and disease originate directly or indirectly from bad food, bad air, and unsanitary surroundings, and unhygienic ways of living in general, can any one fail to see the infinite amount of good that it is possible to do by establishing schools in which the people may be taught the principles and practice hand in hand of household science?

It is to the public school, not simply a school of methods, but of principles as well, that we must look for the greatest and most lasting good in this direction. There the children of all classes may gain correct instruction in hygienic living; there the subject can be brought to their notice and presented in its true educational light; and there, and there only, can the great middle and lower classes be reached. Private schools may do locally much good, but their influence is not widespread unless they are great. It is only through the public school that this necessary and most valuable information can be diffused throughout the land; and not the least of the benefit which will come from such work will be the moral effect of intelligent study and the pleasure and satisfaction of working out understandingly some of the many perplexing problems of every-day living.

  1. Ptomaines are certain crystallizable substances formed by the growth of bacteria. They are often but not always poisonous. Toxines are substances also produced by the growth of bacteria, but of a different nature from ptomaines; they are always poisonous.
  2. By ambition here is not meant the worldly ambition of amassing a fortune, but the noble ambition of doing some worthy and useful work in the world.