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The Proof and The Pudding: What Mathematicians, Cooks, and You Have in Common

Jim Henle
Princeton University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Joel Haack
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In the delightful book The Proof and the Pudding: What Mathematicians, Cooks, and You Have in Common, author Jim Henle shares exactly that. Henle provides evidence, directed to the “you” who is not necessarily either a mathematician or a cook, that the disciplines of mathematics and cooking share a number of common traits, as do their practitioners. There is no discussion of applications of mathematics to cooking (or for that matter, of cooking to mathematics).

The book is neither a cookbook nor a mathematics book. Rather it is a book about cooking and about mathematics. Yes, there are mathematical ideas and problems presented, and recipes as well, but they are there to illustrate Henle’s points about the commonalities in the two pursuits. I should say, however, that the puzzles presented (typically made up or extended by Henle) and the recipes presented (typically made up or extended by Henle) are intriguing — the reader will want to grab a pencil and some mixing bowls and play along.

So, what are some of these commonalities? Here is just one example. Both mathematicians and cooks have to be arrogant, initially. Having the attitude that one can solve a problem or create a dish is critical to even making the attempt — on the mathematical side, how often have we implored a student or friend to try something, arguing that she or he can in fact make progress on a problem or puzzle? Similarly, many persons are convinced they can’t make bread. Try it!

This arrogance (or mock arrogance, or confidence) should in each case then be followed by doubt: am I correct? How could the solution be improved; how could the bread be made better?

By my (likely incomplete) count, Henle provides 29 commonalities (actually, I arrived at 30, but no one would believe that was an actual count). He also admits that one could similarly link mathematics or cooking to most fields. I doubt though that many of the other comparisons would provide the same amount of fun!

Henle stresses the pleasure and sheer joy of both cooking and mathematics. He does mention the practicality of each, in two chapters, in fact, though these two chapters together occupy a mere one and one-half pages. If you too are a mathematician because of how much fun mathematics is, and you would like to share your joy with others in a way they might be able to understand your pleasure, give them this book.

Joel Haack is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Northern Iowa.

Preface vii
Acknowledgments ix
1 The Mad Scientist 1
2 The Arrogant Chef 11
3 Simple Tastes 21
4 Complex Flavors 30
5 The Discriminating Eater 40
6 The Persistent Cook 44
7 Gluttony 54
8 Vanity, Sloth, Parsimony, and Lust 62
9 On the Edge, and Over 70
10 Thinking Globally 79
11 Eating Locally 87
12 The Humble Cook 92
13 The Clueless Geek 99
14 Elegant Dishes 103
15 Food for the Masses 110
16 Good Food for the Masses 111
17 Just for Fun 112
18 Just to Be Weird 117
19 Celebrity Chefs 124
20 Economy 128
21 Ethics 135
22 Fusion 138
23 It All Comes Together 149
24 It All Falls Apart 151
25 A Proof and a Pudding 161
Index 163