The Chemistry of Thanksgiving Dinner

Safety First: Chief Redox (left) and Princess Avogadro are ready to do some kitchen chemistry. Lauren Wolf/C&EN

Safety First: Chief Redox (left) and Princess Avogadro are ready to do some kitchen chemistry. Lauren Wolf/C&EN

In this week’s Newscripts, I wrote about Diane M. Bunce, a professor at Catholic University of America (CUA), in Washington, D.C., and her quest to make chemistry accessible to the public, as well as her students. She gave a public lecture (with accompanying demonstrations) about the chemistry of Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday evening at CUA. Approximately 100 attendees—mostly students—came out to watch Bunce and her teaching assistants, Maribeth “Princess Avogadro” Armenio and Evan “Chief Redox” Bordt, demonstrate some key concepts of kitchen chemistry. A contingent from ACS, including this reporter, also attended, learning about how pop-up turkey timers work, why muffins rise without yeast, and which antacids work best to tame that post-Thanksgiving-dinner indigestion. Thanks to the technology wizards in the ACS Office of Public Affairs, I’ve included a video of the lecture highlights here. You can also check it out at the ACS podcast “ByteSizeScience." Because the lecture went on for 60 minutes, not all of the topics that Bunce covered would fit into this shorter video. But you can see that she set a table with an entire Thanksgiving dinner and then discussed the precooked foods one by one. One interesting topic missing from the video is how cranberry sauce gels. According to Bunce, heating fresh cranberries in water over time releases the heteropolysaccharide pectin, which is responsible for gel formation. But to get the negatively charged pectin molecules to come into contact and gel, sugar and acid are required. Without sugar, in particular, gel formation is slow and inefficient. The sugar molecules, Bunce said, tie up the water molecules around pectin, allowing the heteropolysaccharides to come together and complex. Of course, for those out there who prefer the sliceable cranberry sauce in a can, this information can be disregarded—I can’t help you make that muck palatable. In the end, the audience got a tasty pre-holiday treat, and the students who attended were able to share in Bunce's demo meal afterward. Hopefully, some of the students will take their new-found chemical knowledge home and share it with their families over dinner.

Author: Lauren Wolf

Share This Post On

1 Comment

  1. This is a great idea. My experience as a chemistry teacher has always told me that my students always stayed focused when food was present. Thus we often made fudge when we were studying crystals.