A Meditation on Cosmic Alchemy

Have you ever heard of the Maillard reaction?

It’s named after the man helplessly attached to this mustache, Louis Camille Maillard. Both he and the mustache were French.

I never cooked that much before I was married. My wife is an excellent cook and, after a few years of looking over her shoulder in awe, I began to do the occasional odd dish. And some of those occasional dishes were very odd, indeed. But cooking fascinates me in that it seems to be one of humanity’s earliest exercises in chemistry.

When you grill a steak or put some bread in the toaster, do you know that beautiful golden browning that appears on the outside? That’s called the Maillard reaction.

It’s a chemical reaction. The protein and sugars in your flank steak react with the heat to create a plethora of beautiful and delicious compounds. You can even see the Maillard reaction when your marshmallow turns all brown and crusty over the bonfire.

And yes, when you add heat, pathogens and parasites are burned alive and purges from your plate. The act of cooking breaks down complex molecules into simpler compounds that are easier to digest. But that’s the utility of it.

The beauty of the Maillard reaction is the color. Amino acids and sugars hugging it out under the stress of high temperatures. Yes, it’s chemistry, but I like to think of it as a kind of alchemy.

How does she achieve the Maillard reaction? Magic.

Pink to brown. White to gold. Brown to near black. Chemistry is a deep magic baked into the cosmos before we discovered it. Taste, sight, safety- these are all enriched and elevated when carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen can no longer stand the heat. A simple act of energy transfer coaxes a little bit of cosmic alchemy into our daily lives.

Hallelujah for the Maillard reaction. And happy Labor Day to those who will see it today.

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