Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Foray into Live-Blogging

7.50pm – Conclusion to this live-blog – the dining hall is still full of people; the generous spirit that Harry Potter imbues in everyone has not allowed anyone to be turned away. I’m glad it is over, as being a nosy and corrupt reporter is tiring work, especially when doing double duty to be a character and a student in a blogging class. But all in all, I had a marvelous place, and I’m sure the 200+ people who attended did too.

6.30pm – More and more people are still entering, and many of them are in quite good costumes. Sure, a bathrobe is not really a Hogwarts school robe, but it is the effort that counts. The food is great, the decorations are wonderful, and the entertainment (the cast, including yours truly) has really made this event.

6.25pm – I’m getting a little tired of everyone saying “no comment” to me – but it is a testament that I am a believable Rita Skeeter, and they know that I will twist whatever I say. In any case, their short answers give me more time to write down the entries for this blog.

6.20pm – Draco Malfoy is strutting around terrifying people, Cornelius Fudge (resplendent with his signature lime green bowler hat) is proseletyzing on the politics of Muggle-Wizard relationships. Professor Trelawney is blundering around in a dazed and possibly drunken manner, offering to predict people’s deaths for them. Just another day at Hogwarts.

6.15pm – Lorna, the wonderful director of Risley Dining, is arranging trays of butterbeer to be served to people still in the line, to give them a little taste of the great things they will finally eat when they make it to dinner. She is awesomely dressed up as Professor McGonagall.

6.10pm – I try to get the couples to dish on their relationships for the entertainment of the crowd, and as luck would have it, the people playing Hermione and Ron were actually a couple, and the people playing Cho Chang and Cedric Diggory likewise. Harry and Ginny were a bit of a problem, as Harry was played by a girl, but nonetheless I got some juicy faux-gossip to malignly report.

6.05pm – There are so many parents that I am encountering among the ranks of the visitors, along with their prospective children, and the visiting pre-frosh. This event was really well placed to target all these visitors, and even though Rita Skeeter twisted all their words in her reportage, I can honestly say they thought it was an amazing and impressive event.

6.00pm – This event should theoretically be halfway over now, but there is no way the people waiting in line will be denied. Luckily, we managed to get a presentation of various owls by the Cornell Raptor program (, and even if they don’t deliver our mail, they are wonderfully beautiful and fabulously diverting for the people in line.

5.55pm – I’m going around followed by my diligent press photographer, who luckily is taking real pictures, not magical ones, of all the characters and the visitors and the decorations. My bright green quill unfortunately has no magical properties of its own, but I write as furiously and as untruthfully as possible. Rita Skeeter is nothing if not a paragon of yellow journalism.

5.50pm – Professor Dumbledore, played by (real-life) Professor Tom Hill, says a few words in a tremendous voice to the feasting hall. These words are “nitwit, blubber, oddment, tweak!” He has obviously brushed up on the details of the first book!

5.45pm – Time for the first showing of Potter Puppet Pals! Six cast members, myself included, are going up to the balcony overlooking the Great Hall. The sounds of the hit video ( are projected across the hall, and the hand-made puppets of Harry, Ron, Hermione, Snape, Dumbledore, and Voldemort perform their little skit. Uproarious applause from below.

5.40pm –In the next room, a deadly skit just started in the depths of the “Ministry of Magic” – Bellatrix Lestrange dueling with Sirius Black. The audience held their breath as he fell into the death curtain – separating the common room from the kitchen – but he was hopelessly dead. And his reenactment of this skit a half-hour later doesn’t change that fact.

5.35pm – Mr. Ollivander is also purveying his fine assortment of hand-made wands (made in Risley’s own woodshop) to some people waiting in line, and everyone seems happy that they will get something concrete (and possibly magical?) to take home with them.

5.30pm – Gilderoy Lockhart is passing out signed photographs to his “adoring” public, so some of the people attending are going to get a little keepsake straight from the hands of a Hogwarts professor.

5.25pm – As I am dressed up as Rita Skeeter, the Daily Prophet’s most admired reporter, I have the pleasure of wandering through the line interrogating the Muggles about what they think of the event. I don’t get very many positive answers, but of course my character is rather a bitch in the books.

5.20pm – the line is now out the door! Not just out of the dining hall, but through three rooms, and the length of the main hall, and out the main door. This is an amazing turnout for such an event, considering it cost $350 and the sweat and tears of the cast members who made the decorations and then put them all up.

5.15pm – Most of the cast members are done eating, so we can go and perform our main function at this event: mingle with the guests and the people waiting in the absurdly long line to make sure they are amused and entertained, and are willing to wait through the line.

5.10pm – Our special Harry Potter food (i.e. British fare) is surprisingly good. No haggis or blood pudding or spotted dick to scare anyone away, but fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, and roast beef. The crowning glory is the Butterbeer – the magical drink described as warm and golden and happiness-inducing. Even without the magic recipe, it is sweet, milky, and caramelly.

5.05pm – the Christchurch refectory in Oxford ( has nothing on us! The four house tables are decorated in their theme colors, and we have even made a humble attempt at engineering floating candles in the ceiling. Even if we don’t have magic, it still works.

5.00pm – the “cast members,” the organizers and volunteers for this event who are dressed up as official characters (I’m Rita Skeeter) get to go in to eat first, and the dining hall is resplendent, fashioned after the descriptions of the Great Hall in the HP books.

4.55pm – the dining hall has not even opened yet and there is already a line of fifty or more people, meandering through our decorated rooms. It looks like it will be quite a turn-out, and everyone who is already here is genuinely impressed and amused at the decorations and our hard work.

4.30pm, Friday April 17th. Short preamble for this live-blog – At this moment, Risley Hall of Cornell University is still preparing and setting up Harry Potter Night. Soon, the residential hall will become Hogwarts, and surrounding locations in the Wizarding world.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Those Crazy Brits and their "Cuisine"

So, British food. Cue the groans. Yes, British food has gotten so much abuse lately. As soon as England became a fashionable and popular place to visit, everyone was struck by their odd, unappetizing, or poisonous-looking foods.

Blood Pudding?
Spotted Dick?
Bubble and Squeak?
Bangers and Mash?

Honestly, as a former resident of London, and as a recent attendee at Cornell’s Harry Potter Night (where British food was delectably served up), I cringe at the criticism of British food. All one needs is an open mind. Haggis is sheep's heart, liver and lungs, minced with onion, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and boiled in the sheep’s stomach. Does that really sound so bad? Well yes. But consider, the French – exemplary for their gourmet food – adore Andouillette sausages, which are pretty much just intestines. And Americans’ beloved chitterlings are likewise the same thing. So it’s nothing too scary.

Blood pudding is animal blood that is cooked with various tasty fillers such as meat, bread, or oatmeal, along with spices, until it congeals, and basically it tastes like the fillers. It’s usually soft in consistency, and is very nice to spread on bread. And seeing as England, Scotland, Germany, Spain, France, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and a slew of Eastern European countries have their own specialties, it really can’t be all bad.

Spotted Dick is in fact a delicious dessert. Well, delicious for British standards anyway. It is a steamed dough with currants (or other dried fruit) served with warm vanilla custard. Nothing dirty or venereal about it. No worries.

Bubble and Squeak is scarier in name than anything else. It is basically a dish of leftovers, where vegetables, such as cabbage, onion, carrots, Brussels sprouts, etc, are fried up with mashed potatoes to make a cohesive patty. It’s nothing too fancy, but it certainly isn’t scary.

As for bangers and mash, it is just sausage served with mashed potatoes. And British sausages are quite a bit better than their American counterparts. Just so you know.

Now another famous British “delicacy” – one that’s found on at least every street corner – is fish and chips. You find this in local joints, the greasier and seedier the better. And not the sad and soggy specimens of some establishments, but thickly battered and crisply friend cod, with thick, golden fries. It’s a cardiac arrest waiting for you, but at least you’ll go out in glorified grease.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

As an honorary American, an almost-teenager, and a resident of Oklahoma, one of the fattest states in the US, I really should have seen Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock's documentary about the horrors of McDonalds' nutrition and marketing, long ago. Instead, I saw it just this weekend, and I'm not sure what I'd rather do - stop eating food altogether, or never step into a fast food restaurant again. Which would be easier? Everywhere you go, in a car, on public transportation, in a plane, to another country - there are McDonalds everywhere. But rather than try to focus on the bad stuff you get to eat at McDonalds, it's so much more salient to see what the bad stuff you get on your body is. Morgan Spurlock was a man with above-average health; 34 years old, 6'2", 185 pounds. After 30 days of eating nothing but McDonalds, he weighed 210 pounds. His cholesterol had increased by 60 points, his body fat percentage shot up from 11% to 18%, and he experienced heart palpitations, shortness of breath, mood swings, headaches, sluggishness, depression, and sexual dysfunction. All this, just from a month of food. All this to a man who had a healthy diet, body, and lifestyle.

You may say, that's not really a problem. Look around Cornell, there aren't really many obese people around here. And yes that's true, partially because we are in New York, which is certainly not a "fat" state, and partially because we are at an Ivy-League school, where the students and faculty tend to be more affluent, better educated, and less likely to be raised on junk food. But this is a national epidemic. And that is not too strong a word. I can personally relate to this problem when I go home for breaks, and see the drive-through lines to McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's, Arby's, Taco Bell, KFC, and the dozen more local fast food chains packed with cars. And, worst of all, everything is marketed to kids! In high school, I remember the great glee everyone had when it was "Taco Bell day" or "Pizza Hut day" in the cafeteria. How, in good conscience, can a company market such poison to children? Overall, it is not the conscience of the companies that need to be changed, it is the personal knowledge and choices made by everyone. But seriously, watch this film if you haven't already. All you need is a shot of Morgan Spurlock puking and unable to have sex after his second burger. It's enough to make you go eat a laaaarge salad.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Go Break that Fast...

"Breakfast is the most important meal of the day."

Cue collective groan. Yes, Mom. We all know. Breakfast is as important as the day is long. This knowledge is so intensely common that nowadays it has almost lost its meaning. Really, in order to perfectly understand the importance of breakfast, it is worth experimenting to see how the body completely fails without it. For example, take a 20-year-old busy female at an Ivy-league institution. Next, take a week - as there so often are - in which this student is lucky to get more than three hours of sleep a night. After such a week, on a morning when this student went to the gym to take a kickboxing class, she almost fainted. Light-headed, dizzy, seeing black and white spots amongst the spandex-clad legs. Of course, not sleeping much, not drinking enough water, and strenuous activity in the morning is not a good combination. But the primary cause for this was the lack of a good morning meal.

So what then is a good breakfast? Obviously, not all breakfasts are created equal - and this article tells us why. Fast food breakfast sandwiches, greasy breakfasts of eggs, bacon, and hash-browns, pastries and donuts, and super sugary cereal are all examples of terrible breakfast foods. They are too rich in fat and/or sugar, and sadly lacking in fiber and protein. Next, there's a bagel and cream cheese, a breakfast bar, or fruits. These are on the "OK" level, because they are mostly healthy except they are lacking several components to make them a complete meal. They lack fiber, protein, or good fats. Alright, so now for the winners, the best foods, the A+ breakfasts. They contain healthy fats, energy-filled carbs, fiber, protein, and a serving of fruit.
1) Oatmeal with berries, a half ounce of nuts, and a glass of orange juice.
2) Peanut butter and banana sandwich on whole-wheat bread, and a glass of skim milk.
3) An egg, boiled or scrambled, and low-fat yogurt with fruit and granola.

This may seem more than you can handle in the morning, but remember, if you consume a considerable number of calories early, you will kickstart your metabolism, have more energy throughout the day, and end up consuming less later on.

Besides, breakfast foods are really the best foods anyway.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Michael Pollan’s hit book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, took the organic, locavore, foodie world by storm in 2006. It was at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List and purportedly changed the lives of several people (one person told me she went vegetarian after reading it), however, I have only recently been aware of its existence and importance.

Michael Pollan describes the US’s production and consumption of food, and how it is, in a word, revolting. The root of all evil, he says, is corn. That’s right, CORN. Because, according to him, everything is made with corn. Obvious things, like popcorn and high fructose corn syrup, but also almost every preservative, fruit and vegetables that come in contact with corn pesticides or are grown in the same soil as corn was, and – most shockingly – meat, fish, and poultry. This is really the worst – fish are force-fed corn! How is that possible? How could someone say that such a practice is healthy for the fish and healthy for the people who will then eat the fish? In the book, Pollan describes how livestock is fed with a mixture of cornmeal, dried up bones, and indiscriminate pieces of discarded slaughtered animals that may well be a mother or a baby cow. Chicken are fed cornmeal and ground-up feathers and chicken bones. Essentially, these animals are kept alive in the worst way possible just until they grow to a nice size for slaughtering and selling. Disgusting.

America’s dependence on corn and corn products is a direct result of a government-led farming initiative in the 1970s that monopolized on the cheap and hardy corn crop. Pollan analyzes the production of four meals throughout the course of the book, showing how the foods come from the corn field to the candle-lit dinner table. The first meal falls under the “industrial” category of food production – it is McDonald’s. It is basically poison, as well as being made almost entirely of corn. That burger is made of corn because the cow it comes from was stuffed to death with a product that none of her four stomachs was naturally made to process. The next meal falls under the “big organic” category – food that is purportedly organically grown. The problem here is that since the organic movement has grown bigger and bigger, more farmers and food producers have taken on the practices of big industrial agriculture, therefore big organic food is not much better than industrially produced food. The meal that Pollan analyzes was cooked at home with food from Whole Foods. The next meal that Pollan makes and analyzes is on a small organic scale – from a local, sustainable farm that uses very few artificial substances or practices. This is a good meal, but it is economically unfeasible for the country because of the government’s subsidization of corn and industrial agriculture. The final meal that Pollan prepares is a “hunter and gatherer” meal: he only uses foods that he has found and gathered, including wild feral pigs, berries, mushrooms, and various greens. This is obviously the least feasible option, because in order to live like this Pollan has to cut himself off from his family and his work, and go around foraging for truffles.

The overall message of this book is very bleak – the only thing to do is to move away from America and avoid any American-grown meat, fish, and poultry. Luckily, I was also told about another book that is much more helpful – What to Eat, by Marion Nestle. It’ll fix you after reading Pollan, trust me.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The chemistry of an epic meringue

Next in the series of food and its chemistry is: meringue!

This sweet, white, perfectly angelic confection has an almost mystical quality – how does it get so shiny, so crunchy on the outside, and yet remain a little chewy inside? Or, conversely, how does it stay perfectly soft in a meringue pie, yet still maintain its height and structure? Read on for the answer.

Meringue is made from some very simple ingredients – egg whites, sugar, and sometimes cream of tartar or cornstarch, as a binding agent, mixed together to make a foam.

A what?
A foam.
That’s all meringue is. Air, essentially.

A standard recipe is one egg white for every quarter cup of superfine, caster, or baker’s sugar. The egg whites are first beaten into soft peaks, the sugar is added tablespoon by tablespoon, while beating all the time to stiff peaks, which are very shiny and glossy, and remain stiff when lifting the beater.

That’s a general recipe – now on to the science!

The answer to a meringue’s feather-light baked structure and its voluminous height topping a lemon pie lies in the egg whites. These parts of the eggs are teeming with protein, and as such, they provide structure for the meringues. The amino acid bonds in the protein are denatured as the egg whites are beaten, which traps air into the fixture. Beating therefore serves the double purpose of breaking up amino acid bonds, and incorporating the all-important air into the meringue foam.

Next comes the sugar – this is the reason everything actually comes together and is stable. The proteins in egg whites cannot stretch and break down completely, which is what would happen after beating and baking them. The sugar, added bit by bit, bonds to the proteins and lends them more strength and elasticity.

The foam should be 5 or 6 times the volume of the unbeaten egg whites. Either spoon the foam into individual meringues on a baking sheet, bake a whole crust of meringue for a pavlova or a cake base, or use the foam on top of a pie. Meringues usually are baked long and low, that is, for an hour at least, and at a low to moderate temperature. With the heat, the air expands, the water naturally in the egg whites evaporates and no longer poses a problem to the structure, and the proteins coagulate to harden and form a crispy, shiny, light meringue. Perfect!

Some DON’TS:
DON’T allow any speck of yolk into the egg white mixture when separating them. This introduces fat to the mixture, which will kill the structure
DON’T use a plastic mixing bowl, or any bowl that is not meticulously clean. Again, fats tend to stick and therefore would contaminate the egg whites.
DON’T stop once the sugar has been added and the eggs are being vigorously beaten. The mixture will break otherwise
DON’T start making meringues on a rainy or humid day, or store the finished product in the fridge, or allow any water to come into contact with the meringue. Water softens and destroys meringues.

NB: no actual recipe is provided. This is a general look at what substances go into meringues, and how each reacts chemically. When actually baking, use a real recipe (like one with measurements and oven temperatures.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A little cooking chemistry

Ever wonder how flour becomes layers of pastry? How egg whites crispen into perfect angelic meringues? How a soufflĂ© stays up? How caramel doesn’t burn or turn into rock (hopefully)?

Thanks to the blogger’s experience as an ex-chemistry major, these questions can be answered.

Let’s examine pastry to start. Pastry dough is, in its most primitive state, made of flour, butter, and a little water. The butter should be cold, so that the molecules that make it up will best retain their structure. Likewise, the water should also be cold so that the butter does not start to melt. Essentially, the kneading of the butter-flour-water mixture should not melt the butter, instead, the butter and water remain cold and just change shape – into a ball of dough.

The kneading has combined the water and the butter, however, they do not completely mix because of the chemistry of the two molecules. Water is a polar molecule, which means that it has a permanent charge in one of its molecules that is not cancelled out by another charge in the opposite direction. Fats are nonpolar; as they are much larger molecules than water, they have more charges in opposite directions that eventually cancel each other all out.

As everyone knows, mixing oil and water does not work – the two repel each other, because one is nonpolar and the other is polar. This same principle applies to baking. The water and the butter do mix inasmuch as they form a dough with the flour to clue everything together, but they do not actually combine – the butter and water rest as layers of sand, unmixed.

Then, when everything goes into a hot oven, the water evaporates into steam as it cooks, the steam expands into bubbles in the dough, leaving behind inflated layers of pastry with lots of air in between.

In the end, when the dough comes out of the oven, it takes the form of flaky, crispy, buttery pastry. Success!