Internal Consistency

There’s a trait that geeks have. I’d like to think it’s an endearing one, but honestly, I know that it’s not. It even annoys other geeks if left unchecked.

Imagine you are watching a movie with a geek such as myself, and there’s a vehicle in this movie. Someone shoots the vehicle, or it wrecks, or it’s driven off a cliff. What happens? Not only does the car explode, but a note of derision escapes from the geek who is watching the movie with you.

Now, some geeks will leave it there. Some will also mention that the car exploding wouldn’t happen, and some will go into a lengthy explanation about how the gasoline vapor needs to be at a particular concentration of oxygen to gasoline in order to even catch fire, much less explode. Mythbusters may or may not be mentioned at this point.

This happens in all walks of geek life, with whatever the geek happens to know. If it’s a geek who knows the English language well, then there’ll be talk of dangling participles and indirect objects. If it’s a geek who knows physics, it might be about how space ships don’t have any atmosphere to bank on, so Babylon 5 is clearly the most realistic of the space television shows of the 90’s. If it’s a Food Geek, it might be about how searing steak doesn’t seal in the juices.

And that’s where the difficulty comes in. This is not a surface attribute that happens to be common of geeks. It’s fundamental to our nature. Also, it’s really useful, perhaps vital, to the way we explore, explain, and change the world around us.

Any movie, book, sentence, mathematical equation, physics experiment, programming language, or life has a set of rules and conditions. The way the geek mind tries to deal with any of those is to understand what those rules and conditions are and to try to work within them to get them to do what we want.

So if geeks do this, what do non-geeks do? The same sort of thing, but to a lesser extent, and with less reliance on explicitly stated rules. Think about catching a ball that’s been thrown to you. Relatively easy to do, under the right circumstances. Now think about solving the equations necessary to predict the location of a thrown ball. Do we do all that math, some of which wasn’t even invented until a couple of hundred years ago, whenever we catch a ball or throw a spear at a moving target?

In a word: no. In three words: not a chance. No, what we do is we watch a lot of balls being thrown, and we recognize the pattern of the flight of a ball. If we do that enough, we get a feel for how balls work when thrown, and, with just a small section of their flight path viewed, we can do anything from a pretty good job to an amazing job predicting where it will land.

The same thing goes on for just about everything. We are really good at recognizing patterns. We see something happen, we internalize the circumstances, and we make predictions whenever we see those circumstances repeated. It doesn’t matter if those circumstances are realistic, as long as they are familiar. Which brings us back to the exploding car.

Cars have exploded in movies for as long as there have been cars and movies. Probably the first move with a car in it featured the car hitting a tree and exploding, destroying the world. (This is a lie.) So we understand, when watching a movie, that when we see a car take a lot of damage, it’s probably going to blow up. When we get into a wreck in real life, though, we don’t run from the crash as quickly as we can to escape the inevitable explosion. The circumstances are different, and we recognize and adapt to those different circumstances.

So why does the car exploding bother the geek mind? Because, as a general rule, we are always trying to solve problems. When we’re watching a movie, we don’t just wait for the ending to happen, we try to predict the ending. We want to know, before we’re told, how the heroine is going to solve the problem and defeat the antagonist to save the world. In order to do that, we have to know what the rules of the world are.

Of course, it’s nice to be able to use a bunch of extra knowledge as well. If you are a geek who knows physics, then there’s a huge amount of knowledge that could be applied to the movie that will let you figure out how to get out of the cell or stop the train or neutralize the acid blood of the aliens, or whatever. But if the car explodes because it hits a brick wall, then real world physics doesn’t work, and that means that a good portion of your potential solutions might not work, either. And that’s annoying.

Still, it’s a common problem with movies, and one that can be worked around. The big problem is if the rules of the world change from one moment to the next. One moment, a car that gets shot in the fuel tank explodes in a fiery ball of death. A few scenes later, there’s a shootout, and the goons are hiding behind a car, which provides complete immunity from all bullets. The solution is simple: shoot the gas tank, and you will have goon-barbecue before they can even realize what their mistake was. Unfortunately, what ends up happening is that the car, in this instance, is not only completely bullet-proof, but it’s non-explody as well.  So a problem that should have been solved isn’t because the rules of the world don’t make sense.

So, finally, let’s get to why this is important for cooking. Jump back up to the end of paragraph 4 where I talk about steak. For the longest time, people seared a steak because, they thought, it sealed in the juices. You would have a juicer, and thus tastier, steak by searing, because none of the juices would escape. That was the rule, we lived by it, and all was good.

The problem is that we know, now, that it’s a lie. Searing a steak does the opposite of sealing in the juices. Searing a steak lets juices escape. Once you know that, it may drive you crazy when people who should know better teach that to others, perhaps on the television or in a book. It’s maddening.

Does it matter? We know that searing is a great idea for meat, because it causes maillard reactions which bring out flavor, and honestly, losing some juices concentrates flavors. Besides, beef has plenty of juice in it. It takes a lot of effort to dry out beef. Some might say that anything that gets people to remember to sear their steaks is worthwhile, even if it’s not entirely for the proper reasons. Those people would be wrong.

Cooking is a set of rules. We don’t know all the rules, but we are trying our best. A lot of cooking instruction boils down to “do this a lot, and you’ll eventually get really good at it,” for the same reason that you eventually get good at catching a thrown ball when you practice enough. Still, you form a picture in your mind of what’s going on in the food when you’re cooking it, and whatever explanation you have can probably be applied to other aspects of cooking as well.

If you know that searing steak seals in juices, and steak is a meat product, then you would be tempted to think that searing pork, chicken, or fish would likewise seal in juices. Those are all meat products, so searing must be great for them. You would be wrong. Trying to sear the fish to keep it moist is like trying to shoot the car that the bad guys are hiding behind; the car should explode, and the fish should be sealed, you just end up with a dry fish and an unexploded car.

In a very large nutshell, this is what I’m trying to do with my food geekery. I’m trying to give people the understanding they need in order to visualize how food and cooking works. To give them the ability to make predictions when they encounter new foods or cooking techniques that they’ve never used, and to have some idea of what will happen when they use them. Having this knowledge doesn’t replace the need for practice and experience, but it should make your practice and experience go a lot farther than if you didn’t have it at all. More importantly, it will hopefully give you the courage to try things that you’ve never tried before, since you’ll have some idea of what’s going to happen and how you’ll deal with it.