Robert Wolke: Chemist who revealed the secrets of the kitchen

Fascinated by the science of food, Wolke column in ‘The Washington Post’ helped a generation of budding cooks

Harrison Smith
Saturday 11 September 2021 20:51
<p>Dr Wolkes was a fountain of fascinating scientific food facts </p>

Dr Wolkes was a fountain of fascinating scientific food facts

Robert L Wolke, a nuclear chemist who spent decades teaching liberal-arts students about the fundamentals of chemical reactions then helped demystify the kitchen through a folksy Washington Post column and book series about the science of food, has died aged 93.

What really happens when a pork chop gets freezer burn? Does adding salt to boiling water actually make pasta cook faster? And is it really possible, even on a 37C day under the Texas sun, to fry an egg on the sidewalk?

Dr Wolke answered all those questions and hundreds of others in Food 101, a syndicated, biweekly column that ran in The Post from 1998 to 2007. With clarity, concision and a bounty of puns and jokes, he explained that adding salt to water might change the taste but will hardly speed up the cooking, and that a process known as the Maillard reaction accounts for why red meat turns brown on the stove.

“He was able to convey the simple message that cooking is something amazing you can enjoy, but much more powerful if you understand the why of things,” chef and humanitarian Jose Andres, a longtime reader of Dr Wolke’s, said. “He brought complex terminology and complex issues down to earth, making many of us, with his explanations and his storytelling, smarter.”

In 2001, Dr Wolke won a James Beard Foundation award for best newspaper food column, along with an International Association of Culinary Professionals honour for best newspaper food writing. A year later, he adapted many of his columns into a book, What Einstein Told His Cook, in which he explored issues such as whether you could use wine and beer while cooking for teetotalers.

His answer to that question examined the evaporation rates and boiling temperatures of water and alcohol, and drew on a 1992 nutrition study that found anywhere from 4 per cent to 49 per cent of the original booze remained in finished dishes. But before getting into the science, he offered a few lines of light verse, riffing on a 1950s novelty song:

“Does the vino lose its power in the Crock-Pot overnight?/ In a flambe baked Alaska, does the brandy lose its bite/ Does the alcohol all burn off, as the cookbooks say it does?/ Or can you eat a plate of coq au vin and get a little buzz?”

Reviewing What Einstein Told His Cook for Washington City Paper, food writer Tim Carman likened the experience of reading the book to “having an eccentric uncle to dinner”, adding that Dr Wolke “manages to pull off an amazing bit of intellectual manipulation: he downplays his scientific credentials with geeky self-effacement when, in fact, his scientific credentials are the very reason you pick up the book in the first place”.

As a chemist, Dr Wolke was perhaps best known for discovering what was then considered the radioactive isotope with the longest half-life, cadmium-113, a scientific achievement that landed him in the 1979 Guinness Book of World Records.

But he became more interested in teaching than in research, and in finding ways to reach students who might not otherwise care about covalent bonds or radioactive decay. Volunteering to lead beginner-level classes at the University of Pittsburgh, where he taught for 30 years, he said he liked the challenge of explaining difficult concepts in the simplest way possible.

He brought a similar approach to writing for a general audience, publishing four books about science in everyday life, including What Einstein Didn’t Know (1997), What Einstein Told His Barber (2000) and What Einstein Kept Under His Hat (2012), a sequel to his earlier food science book. The Einstein works collectively sold about 250,000 copies and were translated into a dozen languages.

To make his work accessible, Dr Wolke sought to avoid technical terms, defining “molecule” as “one of those eentsyweentsy things that stuff is made of”. He advised readers to “ask your friendly neighbourhood chemist about ‘activity coefficients’” if they wanted a more nuanced explanation of the way salt raises the boiling point of water.

“I love what I do. I’m teaching people about two things I’m passionate about, food and science,” he told The New York Times in 2002. “To me, science is nothing more than what’s going on around us as we carry out our daily activities. Food and cooking are gold mines of everyday science.”

Robert Leslie Wolke was born in Brooklyn on 2 April 1928. His mother was a homemaker, and his father was a furniture salesperson who lost his business during the Depression, leading the family to move in with relatives in Poughkeepsie, New York, for about a year until he was able to find work. “Food wasn’t important in our house,” Dr Wolke later recalled, “except that there’d be enough of it”.

As a boy, he used his father’s Underwood typewriter to write and publish his own newspaper, then turned toward science after receiving a chemistry set for his 12th birthday. He graduated in 1949 from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, which later merged with New York University, and in 1953 received a PhD in nuclear chemistry from Cornell University.

His scientific career later took him to the University of Chicago, the defence contractor General Dynamics, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the University of Florida.

After landing at the University of Pittsburgh in 1960, he established a nuclear chemistry laboratory, set up a faculty development office to improve teaching and became known for performing parody songs and monologues at school conferences and parties.

His sense of humour occasionally got him in trouble; according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he was fired from his administrative job after publishing a waggish column about teacher evaluations at the university, and taught for another year before retiring in 1990. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” he told the newspaper, “because it allowed me to write full-time.”

Dr Wolke had previously written a pair of chemistry textbooks. As he turned toward popular writing – authors such as Harold McGee were already exploring the science of food – he wrote a letter to Post food editor Nancy McKeon, pitching a story that examined the idea of cooking with alcohol for recovering alcoholics. She suggested he write a regular column instead.

“He was willing to get his hands dirty and take on things in the zeitgeist,” McKeon says, “and deal with them on a very practical level.”

Dr Wolke was also a consulting editor for Cook’s Illustrated. (The magazine’s founder, Christopher Kimball, once described him as “that rare mix of lab-coat scientist and raconteur, as if Albert Einstein’s mother had married Rodney Dangerfield’s father”.) In 2005, he received an American Chemical Society award for interpreting chemistry for the public.

His first marriage, to Betty Ann Maruca, ended in divorce. In 1991, he married food writer Marlene Parrish, who later contributed recipes to his “Einstein” books. In addition to his wife, of Pittsburgh, and his daughter from his first marriage, of Austin, survivors include a brother.

Dr Wolke said that he was initially uncomfortable with the title of What Einstein Didn’t Know, the book that kicked off his popular science series, because it suggested he knew more than the great theoretical physicist. But after the title was selected by his publisher, he made his peace with it, sometimes recounting a story about a reporter who asked Einstein what was “new” in science.

“Oh,” the physicist replied, “have you already written about the old science?”

As Dr Wolke told the Post-Gazette, that was the whole point of his book, which answered such ordinary questions as to why batteries died and how magnets worked. “There’s so much science everywhere,” he said, “that’s totally ignored.”

Robert Wolke, chemist, born 2 April 1928, died 29 August 2021

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