Monday, September 20, 2010


My parents were a very close couple. Even though my mother was an all-A student and a shining star in the biochemistry firmament at the University of Michigan, she chucked it all when I was born. However, during the 30+ years of my father’s illustrious career, my mother provided the culinary support that made my father’s parties notable and popular.
Before saying more about them, a few words should be said about the field of biochemistry.

First, one should start with chemistry. It’s an Arab word, and it stems from Alchemy. This was NOT the pursuit of merely transforming elements into gold. It was a branch of science and it started in Andalusia, that pre-1492 civilization where Jews, Muslims, and Christians co-existed, usually happily, sometimes testily. But that all ended with the Spanish Inquisition, a giant lurch backward into the Dark Ages.

Fortunately, enough of the scientific pursuit, science for the sake of science, had by then made its way north to Oxford and Paris, the two modern, somewhat secular, universities. By then, that is by the fateful year the Columbus embarked, the Church’s stranglehold on intellectual pursuits had loosened, and great philosophers and thinkers had emerged, some taking with them the remnants of the Andalusian civilization.

Chemistry became a rich man’s game at the time of Joseph Priestley in the 18th century, and Benjamin Franklin was a close friend. Priestley discovered 8 of the atmosphere’s gases and Lavoisier, a Frenchman killed at the guillotine, made great strides in learning about oxygen before his noble efforts were terminated by a sharp blade.

A hundred years later came the great organic chemistry revolution, funded by the Germans, who were partially motivated by a desire to manufacture cheap dyes. In the 19th century, great German chemists like Justus von Liebig studied the chemistry of life. One of his contributions was bouillon: a technological method for concentrating amino acids so that these foundations of life could be stored at room temperature in order to promote health of workers during the Industrial Revolution. One generation later another German chemist, Fritz Haber, developed the Haber process for producing inorganic ammonia, which revolutionized agriculture. Without it, we would not have close to 7 billion people living on our Blue Dot, Earth. They simply could not be fed. Fritz Haber, by the way, represents a human version of the Titanic. If you want to read about how he represents the best and worst of human nature, Google his name. You will be shocked.

By the end of WWII, organic chemistry had powered two world wars and had enabled the deaths of millions—whether through mustard gas, rubber, or petroleum. Millions were starving, and U.S. drug companies such as Merck were about to reap vast profits, propelling them into the financial powerhouses that they are today.

Biochemistry, the study of how cells work, was a new field. Inorganic and organic chemists initially dismissed it as “applied chemistry,” the usual rubric reserved by some academics for those studying information that was less important to society. Academia is not immune to the usual human prejudices. My father was one of the first biochemists, as he was not permitted to join the war effort due to his German birth, so he spent the war years studying in this new and promising field.

He got a job working at Merck while still studying for his PhD at the University of Michigan. He helped find economic ways of producing various antibiotics, which were sorely needed by survivors of concentration camps and other victims of the war.
While he worked there, he took the train into Manhattan regularly to eat on “Restaurant Row” on 46th street. Here, he lost his Midwestern culinary virginity and learned about the glories of Bourgeois French cuisine. It was this exposure that altered his DNA, which was eventually to become part of my cells.

This initial exposure to les gloires de la cuisine française set the stage for our trip to France in 1961.
It also set the stage for future biochemistry parties. Years later, when my father was a Full Professor and eventually Chair of the department, he threw parties to which his graduate students were of course obliged to attend. My mother labored long and hard to make those parties special, using a range or recipes she had gleened from Gourmet and Joy of Cooking, her two main resources.

I assisted her. Something screamed in my cells that working in the kitchen was the right thing for me to do.

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