By Bang Tran, FoodCorps service member in Atlanta, GA
Do you remember the first time you tried to poach an egg? How’d it turn out? Was it the creamy, fluffy dream you’ve come to expect from your favorite brunch spot?
I remember the first time I tried to poach an egg. It was horrible. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat, jarred awake by images of a half-cooked, semi-solid yolk reaching for me with its many wispy egg white tendrils, like a true Lovecraftian nightmare.
These days, I can poach an egg like a champ. My mama calls me the “Michael Jordan of Poaching Eggs,” and sometimes I can hear people murmur in the streets about how powerful my egg poaching aura is. But you don’t get here overnight, no—poaching eggs is both a science and an art.
So what did I do to get so good? Some say I was born with it, but I’d say I got here with lots of patience, plenty of research, and an uncountable number of failures. After the first time, I set out to really figure out how to do it. Should I swirl the water? Should the water be a rolling boil or a bare simmer? What about all this vinegar nonsense?
But I’m not going tell you the secret. It’s all in the journey, y’all.
These days, I spend a lot of time teaching students how to cook. My students range from kindergarteners to 8th graders, and always, each and every one of them get so excited to crack an egg, salt the final product, or to wash the vegetables we’ve grown in the garden. Without fail, the easiest way to get to students’ hearts is through food, even if they’re the rowdiest bunch you’ve ever met.
Earlier this year, I was working with a 5th grade class. It was my first time with this particular class, and unfortunately the teacher was out sick and we had a substitute teacher. Naturally, they were extra rambunctious with the absence of their teacher. We were learning about fractions and doing recipe conversions, and all of it culminated in delicious pancakes. That was the plan, but when working with students, plans don’t always work out. They didn’t read directions too clearly, they weren’t quite listening as intently as they should’ve been when we were going over fraction conversions, and our pancakes turned into an alkaline mess.
Baking soda. They put seven tablespoons of baking soda into the mix. Somebody please help me.
Now, that may have been a failure on my part. I might have been too trusting. I probably should have supervised better. But hey, I didn’t make the batter—they did. We cleaned up, tossed most of the pancakes we made, and I left for the day. Washed my hands clean; my work here is done.
But it wasn’t over. They wanted to make the pancakes again. They wanted to figure out what went wrong, and they wanted to try it without baking soda. We did it again two weeks later, we read directions more clearly, we double-checked our conversions, and we even experimented by making some without baking soda. The ones without baking soda were gummy, mushy, and didn’t have the fluffiness we wanted. So, we added a bit of baking soda and, finally, we made fluffy, tasty pancakes from scratch, with a heaping side of science and math education.
Cooking is chemistry—we all know that. We can talk on and on about the scientific processes behind cooking, but the real value comes in the process of cooking. Cooking with students fosters scientific inquiry and opens a whole world of scientific applicability they’re usually not used to. It’s a whole lot of “How did I mess this up this time?”, a bit of “Well, what if I change this?”, a smidge of “I need to find out more about what’s happening,” and finally the cherry on top: “I did it!” I’ve spent many years working in research labs, and I’d say that’s pretty accurate, except we weren’t allowed to eat in the lab.
We can use cooking as a gateway to more scientific thinking, as well as to bridge the gap of everyday life and science education. Traditional science experiments are great and all, but what about experiments where you get to eat the delicious results? If we can expose young students to this type of thinking, this idea that failure happens and that it’ll all be OK, that we can improve our work by doing research and experimentation, then maybe they’ll go on and apply that to everything they do in the future, whether it’s art, science, or business. As an added bonus, they won’t have to eat ramen all the time in college: They’ll know how to poach an egg.
Use the kitchen as a classroom to bring all those esoteric scientific theories into everyday practice and nurture the growing natural inquisitiveness of young minds. That’s how we’ll cure cancer, colonize Mars, paint the next Mona Lisa, and solve world hunger: one failed poached egg at a time.