Robert Wolke: Chemist and Washington Post Columnist Who Demystified the Kitchen

From a Washington Post obit by Harrison Smith headlined “Robert Wolke, chemist and Post columnist who demystified the kitchen, dies at 93”:

Robert L. Wolke, a nuclear chemist who spent decades teaching liberal-arts students about the fundamentals of chemical reactions, then helped demystify the kitchen through a folksy Washington Post column and book series about the science of food, died Aug. 29 in Pittsburgh….

What really happens when a pork chop gets freezer burn? Does adding salt to boiling water actually make pasta cook faster? And is it really possible, even on a 100-degree day under the Texas sun, to fry an egg on the sidewalk?

Dr. Wolke answered all those questions and hundreds of others in Food 101, a syndicated, biweekly column that ran in The Post from 1998 to 2007. With clarity, concision and a bounty of puns and jokes, he explained that adding salt to water might change the taste but will hardly speed up the cooking, and that a process known as the Maillard reaction accounts for why red meat turns brown on the stove.

“He was able to convey the simple message that cooking is something amazing you can enjoy, but much more powerful if you understand the why of things,” chef José Andrés, a longtime reader of Dr. Wolke’s, said. “He brought complex terminology and complex issues down to earth, making many of us, with his explanations and his storytelling, smarter.”

In 2001, Dr. Wolke won a James Beard Foundation award for best newspaper food column, along with an International Association of Culinary Professionals honor for best newspaper food writing. A year later, he adapted many of his columns into a book, “What Einstein Told His Cook.”…

Reviewing “What Einstein Told His Cook” for Washington City Paper, food writer Tim Carman likened the experience of reading the book to “having an eccentric uncle to dinner,” adding that Dr. Wolke “manages to pull off an amazing bit of intellectual manipulation: He downplays his scientific credentials with geeky self-effacement when, in fact, his scientific credentials are the very reason you pick up the book in the first place.”

As a chemist, Dr. Wolke was perhaps best known for discovering what was then considered the radioactive isotope with the longest half-life, cadmium-113, a scientific achievement that landed him in the 1979 Guinness Book of World Records.

But he became more interested in teaching than in research, and in finding ways to reach students who might not otherwise care about covalent bonds or radioactive decay. Volunteering to lead beginner-level classes at the University of Pittsburgh, where he taught for 30 years, he said he liked the challenge of explaining difficult concepts in the simplest way possible.

He brought a similar approach to writing for a general audience, publishing four books about science in everyday life, including “What Einstein Didn’t Know” (1997), “What Einstein Told His Barber” (2000) and “What Einstein Kept Under His Hat” (2012), a sequel to his earlier food science book. The “Einstein” works collectively sold about 250,000 copies….

“I love what I do. I’m teaching people about two things I’m passionate about, food and science,” he told the New York Times in 2002. “To me, science is nothing more than what’s going on around us as we carry out our daily activities. Food and cooking are gold mines of everyday science.”…

Robert Leslie Wolke was born in Brooklyn on April 2, 1928. His mother was a homemaker, and his father was a furniture salesman who lost his business during the Depression….“Food wasn’t important in our house,” Dr. Wolke later recalled, “except that there’d be enough of it.”

As a boy, he used his father’s Underwood typewriter to write and publish his own newspaper, then turned toward science after receiving a chemistry set for his 12th birthday. He graduated in 1949 from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, and in 1953 received a PhD in nuclear chemistry from Cornell University.

His scientific career later took him to the University of Chicago, the defense contractor General Dynamics, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the University of Florida.

After landing at the University of Pittsburgh in 1960, he established a nuclear chemistry laboratory, set up a faculty development office to improve teaching and became known for performing parody songs and monologues at school conferences and parties.

His sense of humor occasionally got him in trouble; according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he was fired from his administrative job after publishing a waggish column about teacher evaluations at the university, and taught for another year before retiring in 1990. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” he told the newspaper, “because it allowed me to write full-time.”

Dr. Wolke had previously written a pair of chemistry textbooks. As he turned toward popular writing — authors such as Harold McGee were already exploring the science of food — he wrote a letter to Post food editor Nancy McKeon, pitching a story that examined the idea of cooking with alcohol for recovering alcoholics. She suggested he write a regular column instead.

“He was willing to get his hands dirty and take on things in the zeitgeist,” McKeon said, “and deal with them on a very practical level.”

Dr. Wolke was also a consulting editor for Cook’s Illustrated. (The magazine’s founder, Christopher Kimball, once described him as “that rare mix of lab-coat scientist and raconteur, as if Albert Einstein’s mother had married Rodney Dangerfield’s father.”) In 2005, he received an American Chemical Society award for interpreting chemistry for the public….

Dr. Wolke said that he was initially uncomfortable with the title of “What Einstein Didn’t Know,” the book that kicked off his popular science series, because it suggested he knew more than the great theoretical physicist. But after the title was selected by his publisher, he made his peace with it, sometimes recounting a story about a reporter who asked Einstein what was “new” in science.

“Oh,” the physicist replied, “have you already written about the old science?”

As Dr. Wolke told the Post-Gazette, that was the whole point of his book, which answered such ordinary questions as why batteries died and how magnets worked. “There’s so much science everywhere,” he said, “that’s totally ignored.”

Harrison Smith is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. Since joining the obituaries section in 2015, he has profiled big-game hunters, fallen dictators and Olympic champions. He sometimes covers the living as well, and previously co-founded the South Side Weekly, a community newspaper in Chicago.

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