A new book by chemist Sandra Greer, SM’68, PhD’69, brings hard science to the kitchen.
When Sandra Greer, SM’68, PhD’69, was growing up in Greenville, South Carolina, she had zero interest in cooking—even though her mother tried to persuade her it was chemistry. Greer learned to cook during graduate school out of economic necessity. “In some sense it was natural for a thermodynamicist, which is what I consider myself, to get interested in cooking,” she says. “But also I like to eat.”
Greer’s new textbook, Chemistry for Cooks: An Introduction to the Science of Cooking (The MIT Press, 2023), brings a scientist’s expertise into the kitchen, explaining such ordinary wonders as the Maillard reaction (responsible for “the delicious taste and smell of a crusty bread”) and colloidal dispersions (“Ice cream is four kinds of dispersion: an emulsion, a foam, a suspension, and a gel!”). Each chapter concludes with a recipe analysis (her mother’s fruit cobbler is among the recipes) along with stumper questions for exercises: “Are carotenes water-soluble? Xanthophylls? … Why does coffee not taste as good when it is in a paper cup with a plastic lid?”
Her comments have been edited and condensed.
In the acknowledgments of Chemistry for Cooks, you thank Mills College, where you taught The Chemistry of Cooking in 2014. Is that class how the book started?
I had noticed that undergraduate students often were afraid of their general science courses. I wanted to have a science course that would be fun. The class filled immediately.
I only taught the course the one time, and then I retired. I had developed my own notes for the course, because I couldn’t find a textbook that was quite what I wanted. So the book is based on my notes.
What are the most useful lessons home cooks could learn from your book?
One of the things home cooks have trouble with—and professional cooks as well—is salt. When you’re cooking vegetables, if you salt early on, it helps break down the fibers. On the other hand, putting salt on meat right before you cook it serves no particular purpose. And definitely don’t put pepper on it. If you put salt on, it doesn’t hurt, but it’s not going to diffuse into the meat. Pepper is a plant product. It will just burn on high heat, especially if you’re grilling a steak.
The way people think about salt and pepper—always using both and always doing it—is mistaken. I’ve watched TV chefs using enormous amounts of salt and I shudder.
And you don’t need all those fancy salts—sea salts, colored salt. As a chemist, I think if it’s salt, it should be salt. I think it’s Morton’s that adds another compound to the salt to keep it from sticking together. I don’t want that in there either. Diamond crystal salt has no such additives. It’s just salt.
Have you considered doing a trade version of your book for cooks who are long past college?
I was thinking about that, because a librarian friend told me that no libraries will buy my book because it’s a textbook. If I were to turn it into a trade book for the broader market, all I would do is take out the exercises and questions. Otherwise it would be pretty much the same book.
Some younger friends have said, Well, why don’t you do a podcast? I don’t know if I’m a podcast kind of person.
Do you cook from scratch often?
Every day. Now that I’m retired, it’s as close as I get to being in a laboratory.
Do you have a signature dish?
I’m not a particularly creative cook. I don’t know that I have a dish that I’ve invented.
In the preface, you write that as a child, you loved your chemistry set and microscope. That must have been unusual for a girl in the 1950s.
My parents wanted to give me dolls, which I had no interest in. I wanted what my boy cousins had. I did get them. But I had to ask.
How did you get interested in chemistry in the first place?
There were no scientists in my family, nobody at all. But even when I was a little kid, four or five years old, I wondered what things are made out of. And if you cut something in half, and cut that in half, and cut that in half, what do you finally get down to?
I didn’t even know to call it chemistry until later when I saw chemistry sets. And from then on, I thought that was something I wanted to do.
What was your graduate experience like? Were there other women in the program?
Well, it was the University of Chicago, which has always been progressive, but it was also the 1960s.
I think there were 30 or so students in my year, and maybe three or four women out of that. That’s pretty good. There were still at that time graduate programs that wouldn’t accept women.
There were professors who did not want women as dissertation advisees. I did my graduate research with Lothar Meyer. He was a German-Jewish chemist and physicist, who had spent World War II hiding in a barn in Holland and emigrated after the war. I had a good experience in his group. I never had any sense from him that I was any less than anybody else. But when it came time to look for a job, that was a problem.
In 1969, by and large, women weren’t hired at universities as professors. The place where most of us found employment was in the federal government.
I applied for a postdoctoral position at the National Bureau of Standards. I was married to another U of C graduate at that time, and he got a postdoctorate there. I did not. They would not give two in the same family, and they gave one to him.
But a woman physicist there helped me get a part-time job that later turned into a regular job, and I stayed for eight years. During that time, there was a budget crisis, and the head of our division decided the way he would solve it was to fire all the women scientists because we didn’t really need the money.
How did you break into academia?
By 1978 colleges and universities were beginning to open up to women. The University of Maryland had a job in the chemistry department. I applied. They already knew who they wanted to hire, but they went to the administration and got a second job. So I was an affirmative action hire at the University of Maryland in 1978, and I stayed for 30 years.
At Maryland you worked on a report called Making a Difference for Women, or what’s come to be called the Greer report.
In the late ’80s I was settled in the chemistry department. The chief of staff to the president was putting together a committee to improve the situation for women. She asked me to chair the committee because I was a scientist, and she wanted somebody who was “one of the boys.”
We looked at the curriculum. Let’s take art history just as a case. Faculty would talk about art as if women had never been artists. There were no women mentioned in the whole course. We arranged for professors—women and men—to get summer salaries, to do the necessary work to change their courses to include the contributions and perspectives of women.
We put together a report and went to the administration. I said to the committee, because I was used to applying for grants to do science, if we want them to take us seriously, we need to ask for a lot of money. We’re going to ask for $2 million. This was in the late 1980s.
Some of my colleagues from English and women’s studies had not ever had to deal with raising money. They gasped. But we got the money and we needed it. We used it to make curriculum changes, hire women faculty, et cetera. I think we had an impact on the campus.
After you retired from Maryland, you became provost and dean at Mills College, a small liberal arts college that was then for women only. Why go somewhere so different?
Both my children were living in San Francisco, and it was clear they weren’t going to move back. And in my mid-60s, I couldn’t see myself continuing to raise the kind of money you need at a Research 1 institution like the University of Maryland. But it hurt to give up my laboratory.
Mills is an oddly famous school, especially since it’s so small.
It was a unique and beautiful place with a big heart, where anybody could fit in. For example, we had trans students. It was women only for undergraduates, but our quiet policy was, If they say they’re women, we believe ’em.
And then sometimes we’d have students who arrived as women then decided they were men. They were welcome too.
It was also very comfortable for me. There’s a little piece of my life we haven’t touched on. While I was chair of chemistry at Maryland, I came out as lesbian. That went OK at Maryland. But I was really comfortable at Mills.
What’s next for you?
I don’t have another big project. I’m just trying to relax, enjoy a fairly new romantic relationship, enjoy my grandchildren and my children who are nearby. I’m trying to have more fun in my life at this point.
All these books I’ve wanted to read all these years are piled up around the house. And then I cook every day.