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The Chef Who Plays With His Food

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If you think this is a picture of nachos, you'd be forgiven. That was most certainly the intention of Homaro Cantu when he created the dish. But the apparent chips with hamburger and cheese seen above are actually an elaborate dessert. The chips are actually candy. The beef is chocolate and the highlight of the treat is the mango sorbet that is frozen with liquid nitrogen and shredded to look like cheese. As the patron enjoys the dessert, the sorbet even starts to melt, resembling the melting cheese you'd expect to see on a plate of nachos.

Cantu is more of a scientist than he is a chef and his recent demonstrations at TED2011 helped show just how much chemistry can go into a great meal. Check out the whole story over on BoingBoing.

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Big Questions
Why Do We Cook So Many Foods at 350 Degrees?
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Whether you’re making mouthwatering blueberry muffins from scratch or finally giving in to that partially opened box of fish sticks that's been hiding in the back of your freezer for eight months, there’s a fairly good chance that you’ll be heating your oven to 350ºF. How can such vastly different foods require the same cooking temperature?

It’s all thanks to something called the Maillard Reaction. In 1912, chemist Louis Camille Maillard was the first to describe the magical transformation that happens to food when it's cooked at around 300 to 350ºF. The finer details of the process are still not totally understood, but according to Serious Eats, it’s generally agreed that the Maillard Reaction happens when heat transforms the proteins and sugars in food, creating a release of new flavors, aromas, and colors. On a primitive level, these delicious changes signal to humans that the food won't harm us and may also contain vital nutrients.

However, that doesn’t mean that we should cook everything at 350ºF. That’s just the baseline. For example, most breads need higher temperatures to rise quickly, and puff pastries do better in the 400ºF range because the steam released at that temperature helps the dough expand. But for many recipes, 350ºF is the golden rule.

By the way: you should thank your lucky stars for modern oven temperature dials, which are way better than the old method of sticking your arm inside to test the heat. Before temperature technology existed, Slate says, bakers would hold an arm inside the oven to see if they could stand it for more than 30 seconds. If they could, it wasn’t hot enough yet.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Food
Why Ice Cream Parlors Were Once Considered Evil
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Chocolate chip cookie dough is probably the only sin you connect with ice cream parlors—after all, they’re associated with squeaky-clean, rated-G good times in a fresh-faced, olden-timey environment. But ice cream didn’t always have such a deliciously benign rep. In fact, at the turn of the 20th century, the ice cream parlor was regarded by many as a den of corruption, prostitution, and sin. 

There was New York, where a man testified to a senate committee in 1895 that he knew of several ice cream parlors that were “really houses of prostitution or disorderly houses.” But Chicago was really the center of the immoral ice cream epidemic—the city had so many problems in ice cream parlors that it passed a curfew law and even forbade the institutions from erecting “curtains, screens, or partitions of any kind that will serve to divide such places into compartments.” 

In 1911, the city’s vice committee published a report of its activities at ice cream parlors, which included nabbing gropers, flirts, and girls who told boys they “could be had.” But perhaps the most outrageous anti-ice cream parlor screed was published in a 481-page 1909 book called War on the White Slave Trade, in which the Illinois Vigilance Association tore the city’s taste for cool treats to shreds.

“One thing should be made very clear to the girl who comes up to the city,” the association warned, “and that is that the ordinary ice cream parlor is very likely to be a spider’s web for her entanglement.” They went on to describe how foreign-owned ice cream establishments were “recruiting stations” for prostitution, where “scores of girls have taken their first steps downward.”

Why ice cream parlors? Historian and folklorist Bill Ellis writes that ice cream wasn’t exactly seen as all-American in the early 1900s. Despite its adoption by Americans like Thomas Jefferson, the cold treat was associated with foreign tastes—tastes that were associated with the specter of “white slavery,” a dated term used to described sex trafficking, prostitution, and other kinds of sexual debauchery during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Fueled by fear of immigrants, changes in how men and women met and married, and consternation over the relative freedom of working women, the term became a major cause at the turn of the century, and a rallying cry for panicked parents and uptight reformers.

Ice cream parlors found themselves in the center of the controversy. Often foreign-owned, the establishments that tried to capitalize on growing leisure time and changing tastebuds found themselves in the crosshairs of moral panic. 

So did the scoop scare cause ice cream business to dwindle? Not exactly. In a 1914 edition of The International Confectioner, an ice cream expert noted that the industry was already so big it could compete with butter production. “The man who kills the goose that lays the golden egg always has and ever will be called a fool,” he wrote. So much for empty ice cream freezers in those dens of sweet, sweet sin.

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