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Courtesy of jeffreywIt's more than mirepoix. Cornell University and Hobart and William Smith College professors have organized a contest, "Communicating Chemistry: Cajun Cooking," for April 9, 2013, during the American Chemical Society's (ACS) spring convention in New Orleans. The competition will take place at the restaurant Dickie Brennan's Tableau in the French Quarter.

Conveying critical topics in food chemistry, teams of undergraduate and graduate students will present — in a style reminiscent of television food shows — interactive cooking demonstrations of New Orleans' regional cuisine.

Contest judges include noted food science authors Shirley Corriher (from Food Network's "Good Eats") and Harold McGee (curiouscook.com); Darin Nesbit, executive chef of Dickie Brennan's family of restaurants; and Terry Acree, Cornell professor of food science.

From college and university proposals collected nationwide, three student teams were selected for the final competition at the ACS meeting. The teams and their presentations are:

  • Cornell University, Pecan Pie: The quality of pecan pie links closely to the filling texture. The Cornell team explores the role of metals and proteins in setting the gel in a practically perfect pecan pie filling.
  • Fresno State, Roux and Gumbo: The deliciousness of roux and gumbo may be in a universe all its own. Roux, a paste prepared by heating flour in fat or oil, brings an essential component to many Louisiana dishes, including gumbo stew. The team examines the chemical changes responsible for the nutty aromas, darkened color and thickening properties of roux.
  • The College of the Ozarks, Crawfish étouffée: Say étouffée and you're talking classic Cajun seafood stew. The College of the Ozarks team examines the effects of the cooking process on the multiple components of this dish, including changes to shellfish color, stew thickness and vegetable texture.

"We want students to learn more about the science of food, but we also want them to get experience communicating complex ideas to a broad audience, a skill that is critical to all sciences," said Gavin Sacks, Cornell associate professor of food science, who organized the competition with Justin Miller, associate professor of chemistry at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

The three finalists represent an array of higher education institutions across the country, including a land-grant university (Cornell), a liberal arts school (College of the Ozarks) and a large state school (Fresno State), said Sacks.

If successful, Sacks and Miller hope to make the contest a staple of future biannual ACS meetings, featuring each meeting's local cuisine as a focus for each contest.

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