One man's quest to create the perfect chip

A dizzying story of money, obsession and the world's biggest cookbook.

I've recently returned from a trip to Las Vegas, home of the 1,000-item breakfast, 6lb burrito challenge and a dish called "fried chicken Benedict". So perhaps it's not surprising that I ended up reading two lengthy magazine articles about food on the flight home.

The first, from the US edition of Wired magazine, covers the quest of the former Microsoft chief technical officer Nathan Myhrvold, 51, to create the world's most comprehensive cookbook. It's 2,400 pages long, has 1,600 recipes, weighs nearly 50lb and costs £375.25. (Effortlessly besting Heston Blumenthal's Big Fat Duck Cookbook, a snip at £84.49, and even trouncing Ferran Adria's El Bulli 2003-2004, at £215.15.)

Why the need for all those pages? To accommodate Myhrvold's incredibly detailed instructions, of course. Listen to how he cooks his chips:

Myhrvold cuts his potatoes into batons and rinses them to get rid of surface starch. Then he vacuum-seals them in a plastic bag, in one even layer, with water. He heats the bag to 212 degrees for 15 minutes, steaming the batons. Then he hits the bag with ultrasound to cavitate the water -- 45 minutes on each side. He reheats the bag in an oven to 212 degrees for five minutes, puts the hot fries on a rack in a vacuum chamber, and then blanches them in 338-degree oil for three minutes. When they're cool, Myhrvold deep-fries the potatoes in oil at 375 degrees until they're crisp, about three more minutes, and then drains them on paper towels. Total preparation time: two hours.

You'll be pleased to know that, after this process, "the outside nearly shatters when you bite into it, yielding to a creamy center that's perfectly smooth".

It's a fascinating article, particularly as a portrait of one man's obsession -- for Myhrvold has built an entire laboratory in his backyard, with all manner of high-tech gizmos to realise his dream of turning cookery into a science. As the writer notes, he has "the lifestyle flexibility of a multimillionaire and the mental discipline of a world-class researcher".

But if all this talk of affluent people faffing around with vacuum chambers just to make lunch leaves you a little nauseous, then I suggest reading instead this piece from the current issue of The Atlantic, which asserts that "gluttony dressed up as foodie-ism is still gluttony".

The contributing editor B R Myers attacks the "gloating obsessiveness" of those who write professionally about food. While I can't say I agree with him entirely (a world where journalists were only allowed to write about Big Important Things would be a brutally dull one), some of his barbs do hit home. There is, after all, something distasteful about one part of the world fetishing food while another part struggles to get it at all.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times