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'Los Angeles Times' Food Editor Russ Parsons

Parsons examines the science of cooking in his book How to Read a French Fry: And Other Stories of Intriguing Kitchen Science. It's just out in paperback.

20:23

Other segments from the episode on October 17, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 17, 2003: Gary Larson; Interview with Russ Parsons; Review of the film "The station agent."

Transcript

DATE October 17, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Cartoonist Gary Larson, "The Complete Far Side,"
discusses his works
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.

Cartoonist Gary Larson has devoted fans all over the world. His weird and
surreal comic the Far Side was syndicated in more than 1,900 newspapers around
the world and translated into 17 languages. Larson retired from drawing the
Far Side nearly a decade ago. Now his complete output of cartoons, 4,337 in
all, has been collected in a giant, expensive, handsome two-volume collection
called "The Complete Far Side: 1980-1994." In his introduction to the book,
Larson writes, `I'm actually proud of this body of work, and if nothing else,
the other cartoonists will never call me `Skinny Books' again.' No kidding.
"The Complete Far Side" weighs so much it ought to come with its own Sherpa.
But even though the book is heavy, the tone is light and singularly strange.
Terry spoke to Gary Larson in 1998. He talked with her about the inspiration
for his cartoons.

Mr. GARY LARSON (Cartoonist): I always had an affinity for animals that lived
in swamps, and especially snakes. I always liked snakes and caught them and
brought them home, and I had very tolerant parents, I think, that allowed you
to bring things into the house like that and set up little cages and
terrariums or whatever. And that has always stayed with me. On into my 20s,
I had a real strong interest in reptiles and amphibians. But when you do
that, I mean, you start to, obviously, encounter a lot of reactions from
people who, you know, walk into your place and are horror-stricken about what
they see. And, well, it always made you feel like you had to explain
yourself, and I just never had any fear of those things at all. In fact, I
thought they were beautiful. And it started me thinking about, `Well, you
know, is it me or is it you? Why is someone else looking at this and saying
that it's ugly or whatever?' And I started to realize that maybe we all bring
prejudice to nature as well when we decide what's beautiful and what's ugly or
what's dramatic and impressive and what's not, because everything looks the
way it looks because it's...

TERRY GROSS, host:

One of your comics is of a snake that's coiled up but it's sitting on a couch
in a living room. And, of course, the snake skin has the same pattern as the
couch's upholstery...

Mr. LARSON: Right. Right. Right.

GROSS: So the snake's kind of like camouflaged in the living room...

Mr. LARSON: Right.

GROSS: ...where snakes usually are camouflaged in the woods. Did you have
snakes in the house that got out and hid out in the living room?

Mr. LARSON: Oh, I did. Yeah, they would get loose every once in a while, and
my folks were never real pleased about that, but still, they never put their
foot down. But, yeah. Well, I usually could find them, eventually.

GROSS: Usually. All right. That...

Mr. LARSON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...sounds awful to say.

Mr. LARSON: Yeah. I lost an eight-foot boa constrictor once in our house,
and my dad and I went on a search for it. And we were looking everywhere and
could not find this thing, and my mom was gone. She wasn't even aware of it.
You know, we had to find it before she got home. And I remember I was in the
living room looking down in the couch or whatever, and I heard my dad scream
from another room. Well, actually, he yelled, `I found it!' and then this
scream came out of him.

GROSS: What happened?

Mr. LARSON: Well, nothing. Actually, the snake didn't do anything. My mom
had, like, a sewing machine or something, and he had reached up inside--well,
actually, the cabinet that it was in, and he didn't look. He just put his
hand up inside this thing and was feeling, and he put his hand right on it.
And it was really funny because his reaction was to, first of all, say that he
found it and then it sort of hit him that he'd found it, and this scream.

GROSS: In a lot of your comics, you try to see the world through the eyes of
insects and animals, and the human world looks, you know, often very much
absurd when seen through the eyes of insects and animals. In one of your very
funny comics, there's a movie theater filled with insects and they're watching
a horror movie called "Return of the Killer Windshield."

Mr. LARSON: Right.

GROSS: I think it's very funny. What kind of things do you wonder about when
you wonder about what an insect's point of view is like? Do you spend a lot
of time doing that, thinking, `I wonder how the world looks to the insects
that we kill when we drive quickly on the highway'?

Mr. LARSON: Well, I suppose I do. But, you know, it's always been confusing
to me as well to try to understand how or where this idea came from, how I got
there, but...

GROSS: The idea of that particular cartoon or just ideas in general?

Mr. LARSON: In general, 'cause now, I mean, I'm thinking about the cartoon
you mentioned...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. LARSON: ...and I'm going, `Well, how did I think of that? And why did
that come to me?' But, yeah, I imagine I am starting to think about their
world and looking at it and what it would be like and what are the threats and
dangers and encounters that they have in their world, and what do I know about
them and their lives and life cycles, and start thinking like that.

GROSS: We've been talking about real creatures. I want to talk about
monsters a little bit. You have some great monster comics that you've done
over the years, and one of them a monster couple is sitting at the kitchen
table. They're drinking coffee, and Mr. Monster says, `Dang, look at the
time, and I've got to be in little Billy Harrison's closet before nightfall.'
Did you think that there were lots of monsters in your house when you were a
boy, hiding out?

Mr. LARSON: I did. I did. Well, I'll tell you this. I had a real fear of
my closet when I was a kid, and, I mean, I was convinced that something lived
in my closet. And I had this little ritual as a result that every night when
I went to bed I made sure that the closet doors--I had two sliding doors; I
made sure they were completely shut before I went to bed.

And one night, I was in bed and I had my reading lamp on, and I think I was
reading a comic book or something, and I looked up to check on the closet,
'cause I was always checking on the closet, and the door was open, like, you
know, half an inch or so, and I just was mortified. I couldn't believe that I
had done this, I had overlooked it. And, of course, I also knew that I
couldn't get up and go shut the door 'cause that's just what the thing inside
wanted to do. And I didn't want to walk across the room to turn the light on,
and so I just laid there and I was really in a cold sweat wondering what to do
about this.

And I went back to reading for a while. And I looked up again, you know,
like, half a minute later, and I wasn't sure, but I thought that maybe the
door was now a little wider, that it opened a little, but if it had, it was
very subtle. And I looked down again and looked up once more, and this time I
was convinced it was, like, now, like, an inch wide open. And now all I could
do is just stare at it. And I'm just staring at this closet, and I found
myself trying to look into this black slit into the closet. And eventually, I
could make out an eye staring back at me, just one eye looking at me and, oh,
this primal scream came out of me.

And at the same time that I was screaming, the door just slid open very
slowly, I mean, just before my eyes, and my brother stepped out. I don't know
how long he'd been hidden in there, but he knew I had this fear and he was
just milking it out with...

GROSS: Oh, he had your number.

Mr. LARSON: Oh, boy, did he, yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: So did that reinforce or end your fear of the closet?

Mr. LARSON: Oh, it didn't end anything for me.

GROSS: What did you expect the monsters would look like, since you've drawn a
lot of monsters over the years?

Mr. LARSON: I think the monsters that I saw in my mind were very werewolflike
I think.

GROSS: Lots of hair, big fangs...

Mr. LARSON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...partly human and partly animal.

Mr. LARSON: Yeah, actually--and I realize once again my older brother had a
big influence on me because when we shared a bedroom, he had a dream one night
and he woke up screaming, and my mom came running to see what was wrong. And
he described this dream to her of being in a basement somewhere and this wolf
that walked on its hind legs was trying to get him, and the wolf kind of
shuffled its feet and he could hear him coming and he described the sound of
these feet going `shhh, shhh, shhh' down the hallway toward him. And when it
finally showed up, it was this huge wolf on its hind legs, and it didn't have
any pupils, it just had pure white eyes. And it became sort of famous in our
household; it was known as the wolf with the pure white eyes. And he
completely forgot about it after he woke up.

But, for me, his dream haunted me for the longest time. I think I kind of
absorbed his dream, that story, and worried about that wolf somewhere in our
house for years.

GROSS: Now as an adult, you came up for one of your cartoons with a good
device to protect against monsters. It's the monster snorkel, and...

Mr. LARSON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...it allows a child to stay under the covers, hidden from the
monsters, while still breathing through this snorkel. And, you know, in
reading that, it made me think that, you know, in my fear-of-monster era, I
had to vigilantly stay with my head outside of the covers 'cause as long as I
was watching, they probably wouldn't come. See? So if I was under the
covers, that's when I'd be vulnerable.

Mr. LARSON: Oh, that was very different from my own private version of how to
survive. I mean, I could have suffocated maybe some nights. I just did not
want to expose any part of me. I thought...

GROSS: Well, it's interesting that you were, on the one hand, so attracted
to, you know, like, snakes and kind of creepy-crawly type things that would
scare a lot of people, and on the other hand, you were really afraid of
monsters.

Mr. LARSON: Well, literally, I guess that's the difference between day and
night for me.

GROSS: Oh, sure. Yeah. Yeah, right.

Mr. LARSON: Yeah. But in the daylight, I was into nature and, you know,
everything was--you know, I read books on biology and natural history, and I
studied about snakes and other animals. I mean, I was really into that. But,
boy, when the sun went down, it's, like, `Oh, this is another world.'

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross speaking with Gary Larson. His cartoons have been
collected in a new book, "The Complete Far Side: 1980-1994."

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Gary Larson. There's a
brand-new collection of his Far Side cartoons.

GROSS: You said that you don't think of yourself as a very good artist in
terms of drawing, that there's a limit to your capacities in drawing. How did
you start drawing, and how did you feel about it when you started?

Mr. LARSON: I started drawing the Far Side, you mean? Or...

GROSS: No, just drawing in general.

Mr. LARSON: In general.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. LARSON: Well, I was real little. I was drawing since I can remember, and
I was serious about it then. I wasn't drawing, like, cartoons. I mean, they
probably looked like cartoons, but I was drawing whales and dinosaurs...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. LARSON: ...and things like that. So I was always interested in it. And
that was another thing. My folks encouraged me. They always kept me supplied
in paper and whatever. So I've never considered myself to be a great--I think
I can communicate something. I draw well enough to get something across, and
actually, I think sometimes there's a risk, I see, with some people when they
draw so well they almost kill the life of something, you know, of the humor.
I think there's nuances that you have to concentrate on, and if you get those
down, the rest of it's not as essential.

GROSS: Well, with your comics the way they're drawn, they're kind of drawn as
if they're your thought balloon or something. It's like what's going on in
your mind as opposed to...

Mr. LARSON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...what's going on in the real world.

Mr. LARSON: Right.

GROSS: So the fact that everything's a little eccentric in how it's drawn, it
seems to be the way it should be because it's about your sensibility as
opposed to the actuality of the fact of the world.

Mr. LARSON: Yeah. Right. The things that I draw generally come from inside
me. I know of cartoonists whose ideas are triggered by something. And this
has happened to me, too. Someone will say something or you'll be somewhere,
you know, and it'll just hit you like that. But for me, I relied mostly on
just sitting down at the drafting table and starting to let myself go. And I
would call up things from inside me, either experiences or something I knew
from my education or my background or something. And my sense of humor is the
same sense of humor that my entire family has. It's the kind of things that
happen around the dinner table. So, yeah, it's definitely from within, I
guess.

GROSS: Did you ever think that you would be doing this professionally, or did
it just seem like a hobby?

Mr. LARSON: Oh, I had no idea in the world that I would do this
professionally. This is such a weird thing to happen when I look back on it.
You know, it was just one of those things. I rolled the dice and tried it,
and it paid off. In fact, when I first started, I just wanted to pay the
rent. That was my fantasy. Could you actually do something you like to do
and make a living at it? And as soon as it reached that level, I mean, I was
totally satisfied. This is great.

GROSS: You know, if memory serves and if what I read was accurate, you
started off, you know, doing cartoons for a Seattle paper and then took them
to the San Francisco Chronicle where an editor, much to your surprise...

Mr. LARSON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...actually liked them a lot and asked you to stay on with them...

Mr. LARSON: Right.

GROSS: ...and draw for them. And I think it was the people at the Chronicle
who named it the Far Side.

Mr. LARSON: Yes. Yeah, it was.

GROSS: What did you think of the title?

Mr. LARSON: I thought it was fine. They said, `We'd like to call it the Far
Side. What do you think of that?' And I said, `Well, sounds good to me,' and
I guess it sounded good to me 'cause it didn't lock it in a whole lot. I was
worried they were going to give it a name of some character, whatever, Ernie
or something, you know, and I didn't want to have that. I wanted to have some
freedom in it. And they also wanted me to develop maybe characters, like, you
know, Charlie Brown or something that would always come back 'cause they said
that's what's been proven about newspaper comics is that readers need that
familiarity of seeing the same character come back over and over again.

And that's where I said I just didn't know if I could do that. Oh, one of the
reasons I didn't think I could do it, 'cause I didn't even know if I could
draw six cartoons a week. I didn't know where my ideas were going to come
from or if I could do this year after year--well, week after week. And I
signed this contract that said I would do it, thinking, `I probably won't go
to prison if I can't.' And it's, you know, `Why not? I'll give it a shot.'

GROSS: Well, was it hard when you actually signed on to do--What?--six a
week?

Mr. LARSON: Yeah.

GROSS: Was it hard to do them?

Mr. LARSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Well, I was terrified, too. I just didn't know
if I could do that. I almost lied by saying I could. And actually, they
wanted me--and I did, I sent eight a week when I started because they wanted
to have the luxury, of course, of, you know, editing out a couple. But before
that, I was just doing a weekly cartoon. And I was having a hard time coming
up with that. But the thing that happens, that I discovered as time went by,
is it actually gets easier. It's almost like you teach yourself how to think
and it's like you start getting ...(unintelligible) or something by being
forced to be doing it day after day.

GROSS: Was there a first comic that you can think of that got this really big
reaction and made you realize, `Oh, people are paying attention and they're
responding'?

Mr. LARSON: Yeah, that happened to me with a very strange cartoon, I have to
concede. I drew this cartoon showing a cow--What else?--but a cow standing in
front of, like, a workbench, looking out at the reader. And on the workbench
were these just amorphous shapes, and there's, like, a barn in the background
or whatever, this little scene. And I titled it cow tools. And I remember
how I got to this idea, is I was thinking about how anthropologists used to
define mankind as being--man as being the only animal that made and used
tools, and then they subsequently discovered, well, even some birds and
primates do that; so they had to change the definition a little. But I
started thinking about, `What if cows made tools, what would they make?' And
my intention was that, `Well, you don't know what they are. Only the cow
knows what they are, and here are the display of tools that a cow would use
and only a cow knows.'

But the reaction was unbelievable. I thought it was the end of my career,
honestly, because I just started getting a barrage of phone calls and letters
and...

GROSS: Saying what?

Mr. LARSON: Well, saying, `What does it mean?' And that's what happened is
that everyone was just utterly confused by it, and I think there was one
newspaper that posted some kind of a reward or something for anyone that could
figure it out. And that was the first time that I realized that, you know,
more than six people were looking at it. I had no idea.

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross speaking with Gary Larson in 1998. His new collection
of cartoons is called "The Complete Far Side: 1980-1994."

I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Coming up, why a whole onion smells different from a chopped one
and why fresh cooking oil can make disappointing fried food. We get a couple
of lessons in the science of cooking from Russ Parsons, food editor for the
Los Angeles Times and author of the book "How to Read a French Fry." Also, a
review of the new film, "The Station Agent."

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Russ Parsons discusses the science of cooking
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.

Eating out has taught many Americans to be knowledgeable about ordering subtle
and complex dishes from around the world, but it's left many of us less
knowledgeable about how to cook our own food. That's one reason Russ Parsons
has devoted his new book to the science of cooking. The more you know about
why meat browns, why sauces emulsify and how frying is different from
roasting, the more likely you are you to be able to follow a recipe or
improvise in the kitchen. Parsons' latest book, "How to Read a French Fry:
And Other Stories of Intriguing Kitchen Science," is now out in paperback.
Parsons is food editor of the Los Angeles Times. Terry spoke with him in
2001. He told her he started getting interested in kitchen science a few
years ago when his editor assigned him to write a piece about onions.

Mr. RUSS PARSONS (Food Critic): Onions? What do you write about onions? So
I decided I'd do a piece about all of the kind of folklore about how onions
make you cry. And so I rounded up the usual suspects and talked to chefs and
things. But what I realized was that nobody that I talked to really knew why
onions made you cry, and so I thought, well, I'll just kind of dabble into
this food science thing and see if I can find somebody who can address that
question. And it opened up this incredible array of knowledge that I didn't
even know was out there. And the people were so anxious to talk.

You know, the first guy I talked to, you know, was a guy who'd been studying
onion chemistry for, like, 20 years, and what he told me was really
interesting. You know, when you have an onion of whatever kind and you smell
it before it's been cut, it smells different than an onion that's been cut.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Yeah, why is that?

Mr. PARSONS: Well, essentially, most foods are big bags of water. In the
water in the onion there are these little vacuoles--they're little pockets of
different chemicals. When you cut an onion, all those vacuoles are disrupted,
the chemicals empty out and they begin to combine with each other. You get
these chemical reactions. And then those resultant chemicals combine again,
and this guy--I'll never forget when he said this because it was kind of like
the key that unlocked this whole thing. He said it was a cascade of chemical
reactions that occurred in the blink of an eye. And I was just fascinated by
that, and so then I started pursuing the whole onion thing further. And it
turned out...

GROSS: Well, let me stop you.

Mr. PARSONS: Yeah.

GROSS: So those chemicals are what makes us tear?

Mr. PARSONS: Eventually. You know, the raw chemicals don't, but after the
fifth or sixth generation of combining and recombining, the result is a kind
of a sulfur gas, and actually, it's not clear at this point whether the
sulfuric gas goes up your nose or goes directly to the eye. But either way,
it irritates you and it makes your eyes tear as a result of that. And the
great thing is that the chemical name for those chemicals are lacrimators from
the Latin word for tear, `lacrima.'

GROSS: Well, let's get to the taste. How does the taste of an onion change
when it's cut and when it's cooked?

Mr. PARSONS: Now what happens is, you know, you've got the sweet onions that
you pay, you know, 4 or $5 a pound for. Those onions aren't really any higher
in sugar than the brown storage onions that you buy in a big bag for, you
know, 95 cents for five pounds. The difference between the two is that the
sweet onions are actually lower in the chemicals that produce the tearing
effect. Now the interesting thing is that those chemicals are heat volatile,
which means that as soon as they are heated, they evaporate. You know, they
go off into the air, which is also why you might start tearing when you're
frying onions. So when you cook a brown onion, when you cook one of those
regular old cheap storage onions, the chemical compounds go away, those
sulfuric compounds, the ones that make you cry, the ones that make the onions
taste hot and unpleasant when they're raw, they go away. And what's left is
an onion that's sweeter than the so-called sweet onions.

What's also left behind is more onion flavor. If you've ever tried to do--I
think when those sweet onions first came out, the first thing everybody wanted
to do with them, of course, was make onion soup. Well, the result almost
universally was an onion soup that didn't really taste like very much because
part of that really delicious oniony flavor is that little bit of the acidity
that's left behind, that little bit of those chemicals. So if you're going to
eat an onion raw, like on a sandwich or something like that, well, those sweet
onions are wonderful. But if you're going to cook them, you're absolutely
wasting your money.

Somebody described it--I was talking to a scientist, and a lot of those
onions--the first of the really popular sweet onions came from Vidalia,
Georgia, and I was talking to one of the guys who was raising them, and he was
a real good old boy, and he said that cooking a Vidalia onion was like
mudbogging in a Rolls-Royce.

GROSS: Do you have a favorite onion soup recipe?

Mr. PARSONS: Probably the classic. You know, that kind of French onion soup
where you cook the onions very long. You shred them fairly thick, actually.
I cook them that way. And you cook them real low, real slow so that they come
to a very deep brown, and then you add some cognac and you add some beef
stock, cook it for a little bit longer and then you put it in the big soup
plate and cover it with a crouton with some good cheese on it. That's
delicious.

GROSS: How long does that take to make, about?

Mr. PARSONS: Well, an hour, maybe.

GROSS: That's not bad.

Mr. PARSONS: That's not bad. Cooking's not bad. Don't be scared.

GROSS: My guest is Russ Parsons, and he's the food editor of the LA Times and
author of the new book "How to Read a French Fry: And Other Stories of
Intriguing Kitchen Science."

Let's talk about the principles of frying. Now we think of frying as being
like a really hot form of cooking, but compare oven heat to frying heat and
how it affects the foods that are being cooked.

Mr. PARSONS: Well, that's one of those really great paradoxes. Why can you
stick your hand in a 500-degree oven, but you can't stick your hand in
200-degree water or in 200-degree oil? It's because the way we measure heat
is very imperfect. Temperature is what we usually refer to when we're talking
about heat, but temperature is a measure of how fast these molecules are
moving. You know, heat is motion, kind of. What temperature doesn't measure
is how quickly the heat is being transmitted. Now in an oven, for example,
you're cooking in air, and air is not very dense. You know, there are very
few molecules per square inch. It takes a while for that heat to transmit
itself to whatever is being put in there. You know, it's not bumping up
against things very often.

With water, it's more dense, and so the water transmits the heat much more
quickly. Now water has this interesting thing, too, though, that it's not as
dense as oil, so that when water gets to a certain point, those molecules
begin to break loose and they go up in the air. You know, there's steam.
That point is 212 degrees. With oil, the magic of oil is that it's denser
than water, and so the molecules stick together better, and so you can get oil
up to 400 degrees where you can't get water any higher than 212.

That's important in cooking because the kinds of browning reactions, the
things that make food brown, they don't really start happening until you get
to about, oh, you know, between 300 and 350 degrees. So there's lesson one
right there. No matter if you cook something when there's any moisture
present, no matter how long you cook it, it's never going to turn brown.

GROSS: Why does frying crisp the outside of whatever you're cooking?

Mr. PARSONS: The special thing about frying is that in most kinds of cooking,
whether you're talking about roasting in an oven or boiling in water, the
cooking medium doesn't change very much. The water stays essentially the
same, the air stays essentially the same. I mean, there are fine differences,
but essentially they're the same. With frying, both the oil that this food is
being fried in and the food are changing all of the time. For example, one of
the common problems people have when they're deep-frying things is that the
first batch never turns out.

Well, there's a good reason why it never turns out. With really fresh
oil--again, most of the foods that we cook are made up primarily of water.
Oil and water don't mix, so when you put a piece of food in really hot oil,
all of the moisture comes to the surface and it forms this moisture barrier
that the oil can't penetrate, so the oil can't really touch the food that's
being fried.

Now as the frying progresses, as the oil is heated and more things are added
to it, the oil begins to break down. One of the byproducts of this breakdown
is chemical soaps. These aren't the same kinds of things that you wash your
hands with, but they're very close. And, you know, when you wash your hands,
what soap does is it allows the water to penetrate the grease that's on your
hand. The soaps in frying do exactly the same thing. They allow the cooking
oil to penetrate that water barrier so that the cooking oil comes in direct
contact with the food that's being fried so that it browns it better and it
cooks it through more thoroughly.

GROSS: So the more you use oil, the more efficient it's gonna be?

Mr. PARSONS: Up to a point, and then the oil begins to break down to a point
where, you know, you get these kinds of na--the chemicals come off of it. You
get these nasty kinds of odors and it's no longer working as well as it could.
That's kind of where the title "How to Read a French Fry" came from. When I
was talking to one of the scientists who is studying oil chemistry, he started
explaining all of this stuff to me, and I said, `No, no, give me an example.
Give me an example.' And he said, `Well, look at a french fry, you know. The
next time you go to a fast-food place, look at a french fry and you can see at
what stage the oil was.'

I mean, there's usually four stages of oil. There's, you know, pure oil, then
there's oil beginning to break down, then there's oil that's at the perfect
frying stage, and then there's what they call runaway oil, when it's broken
down to the point where it no longer functions. A french fry fried in really
pure oil, really fresh oil, it won't be as brown, it probably won't be cooked
all the way through. There will probably be a little bit of a raw part at the
center of the french fry.

When it begins to break down, that kind of first stage when it's really good
for frying, the french fry will be browner and you'll start to see--it'll be
cooked all the way through. When it's really perfect, when the oil is perfect
for frying, the french fry will be really well browned. The corners will be
really crisp. It'll be cooked all the way through so that you have that kind
of perfect french fry combination of really crisp exterior and almost a steamy
inside.

Then when it gets into the runaway stage, what'll happen is you'll see that
it'll be brown very quickly, there'll be really dark spots on it, kind of
black where it started to burn a little bit, and the french fry will have
started to collapse in on itself. It won't be attractive anymore. And you'll
also get the flavor--there is an old oil flavor that's not very attractive.

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross, speaking with Russ Parsons, author of "How to Read a
French Fry." It's now out in paperback.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Russ Parsons, author of
the kitchen science book, "How to Read a French Fry."

GROSS: Now you've learned a lot of things about the science of fruits and
vegetables, both raw and cooked. Tell us a couple of principles we could keep
in mind when we're buying fresh fruits and vegetables.

Mr. PARSONS: Well, there's kind of two stages of things to think about. One
of them is selecting. You know, when you go to the store, how do you pick
something that's good? The second part is how do you store it once you get it
home? The first part, the really simple answer is--this is almost
embarrassing--the really simple answer is that the fruit or the vegetable
that's heaviest for the size is gonna be the best almost invariably.

GROSS: Is that 'cause it's holding more water?

Mr. PARSONS: It's got more water. One of the things that happens after
fruits or vegetables have been picked, they continue to respirate and they
continue to give off moisture. You know, if you stick a piece--a zucchini in
the refrigerator and it stays there for--I don't want to go into details
because it's embarrassing--but what you find when you pull it out is it's
shriveled.

GROSS: That's right.

Mr. PARSONS: That's because it's given up all of the moisture. Now at a
certain--that's a continuous process that begins at the time that it's picked.
So if you pick the fruit or the vegetable that's heaviest or that looks the
most like it has the most water in it--you know, there's that kind of--like
with eggplant there's that beautiful--it almost looks like it's
bursting--you're gonna be a lot better off.

The second thing is when you get it home, know what to refrigerate and what
not to refrigerate. With vegetables, almost all of them should be
refrigerated. With fruits, and in this case I'm including especially
tomatoes, which most people don't think of as fruits but they are a fruit and
it's important to remember it in this case--be very careful about what you
refrigerate.

Most of the peaches and nectarines that you buy in the store aren't gonna be
very good. What that means is that they're picked before they're very ripe.
If you really want that kind of really juicy peach, there is a trick that you
can do. It will never be as good as a great tree-ripened peach, but if you
store it at room temperature, preferably in a paper bag, for a day or two
days, you will see that the texture has changed, and as the texture changes,
what's happening is the cells in the peach are beginning to break down a
little bit. That's what ripening is. It sounds unpleasant, but it actually
tastes very good.

GROSS: What does the paper bag do to help ripen the fruit?

Mr. PARSONS: It's this weird thing, and nobody can understand--I haven't read
a satisfactory explanation yet why it happens, but when fruit is on a tree,
when the fruits begin to ripen, they give off an ethylene gas that is a signal
to the other fruits on the tree that it's time to begin ripening. When you
store these fruits in a paper bag, what it does is it traps the gas so that
they all get the message a lot quicker, I guess is one way to look at it.

GROSS: Let's get to meat and fish. You talk a little bit about the
differences in some meats and that how that has to do with the muscles of the
meat and whether the muscles are actually used or not in that part of the
body...

Mr. PARSONS: Right.

GROSS: ...and I guess a really good example is the white meat and the dark
meat of chicken. Would you talk about that?

Mr. PARSONS: People tend to sometimes think meat is meat, but meat isn't.
You know, there's a big difference between what I call poultry and meat than
within meat. There's a big difference between pork and lamb and beef.
There's also, within each animal, there's a big difference from one part of
the animal to the other, and it has to do with how much work that part gets.
Really tender parts, like the breast of a chicken, those are parts that don't
get very much work. You know, chickens will fly if they're provoked, but they
don't fly very often and they don't fly very far, but they do walk around a
lot, and so the leg muscles tend to be much more developed than the breast
muscles do.

What happens when the muscles are more developed, the reason that the meat is
darker is because there's more blood circulating to it because of the
exercise, but also there's more connective tissue, and connective tissue, when
it's cooked all the way through, that's that kind of--if it's not cooked it
can be stringy. But when it's cooked all the way through, it actually acts as
a lubricant that makes the food juicier.

That's why, for example, when you're making a beef stew, you'd never want to
make a beef stew with a really expensive cut of meat, you know, with a filet
or something like that. There's no connective tissue there at all. You know,
the meat will fall apart. You want to cook it with a meat that's really been
worked. A chuck steak which comes from lower down on the body, or, you know,
for example, lamb shanks or something like that where it's a piece that's
really been worked a lot, has a lot of connective tissue. You cook it really
long, you cook it really slow, and when the meat gets up to about 160 degrees,
what happens is that all that connective tissue begins to melt right into the
meat and it keeps it moister.

GROSS: Now how does all this information about muscle and connective tissue
apply to fish, if at all?

Mr. PARSONS: Well, fish is kind of weird because fish has very little
connective tissue for the simple reason that fish live in, basically, a
gravity-free environment. You know, think of a cow and how much muscle it
takes for a cow to be able to fight gravity enough to stand up or move around.
You know, fish just kind of float there. They float very free, and so there
isn't very much connective tissue. What that means is that fish cook very,
very quickly because there--again, because there isn't very much connective
tissue. The muscles are also arranged differently. I mean, when you look at
a piece of fish that's been cooked, you see how it flakes off in those
segments. Those--that's the way the muscles are arranged in a fish, rather
than the long, bunchy muscles that animals have. So with fish, the thing to
remember is don't overcook it; that it doesn't need the same amount of cooking
that meat does because it doesn't have the same obstacles to overcome that
meat has.

GROSS: And what's the problem if you overcook it?

Mr. PARSONS: If you overcook it, what's gonna happen--when you overcook
anything, what happens is the proteins in the meat, when they're heated, they
begin to connect. And they connect harder and harder and harder. Eventually,
they squeeze out any of the moisture. So any kind of meat, whether it's fish
or poultry or lamb or beef, if you cook it long enough, you're going to end up
with the same dry, crumbly, flavorless product. It just happens faster with
fish than it does with the others.

GROSS: Well, Russ Parsons, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. PARSONS: Wonderful to be here. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Russ Parsons is food editor for the Los Angeles Times. His book,
"How to Read a French Fry," is now out in paperback.

Coming up, a review of "The Station Agent." This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Film "The Station Agent"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

The actor-turned-director Tom McCarthy reportedly had the idea for "The
Station Agent" when he saw a small, charming, abandoned New Jersey railroad
station. He had planned to cast himself in the title role, but everything
changed when he met Peter Dinklage, who happens to be a dwarf. The movie won
several top prizes at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Film critic David
Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:

There's a scene in the great comedy "Living in Oblivion" in which the hapless
low-budget movie director, played by Steve Buscemi, attempts to shoot a
nightmare sequence with the heroine and an ominous dwarf. Nothing goes right.
And finally the dwarf actor begins to scream that every time some third-rate,
low-budget director does a nightmare sequence, the first thing they call for
is an ominous dwarf.

Well, cinema is a superficial medium, and dwarfs and giants are traditionally
used to signify freakiness, proof that nature can go inexplicably awry. But
in Tom McCarthy's "The Station Agent," the dwarf protagonist signifies
something else, the moronic over use of signifiers. He's played by the same
actor as in "Living in Oblivion," Peter Dinklage, and he works at a charmingly
run-down model train store in Hoboken, New Jersey. Early on, you watch him go
through his day, watch the people who pass him register surprise, some subtly,
some broadly, like the kids who say, `Hey, where's Snow White?'

When the kindly owner of the store drops dead, the dwarf inherits half an acre
in rural New Jersey with a tiny train station, long since forsaken. He
arrives in town silent, unsmiling, like Clint Eastwood shrunk down, the dwarf
with no name. Well, he has a name; it's Fin. But he utters that one syllable
under duress. And like Eastwood in "The Outlaw Josey Wales," Fin begins to
attract a band of misfit outcasts.

Joe, played by Bobby Cannavale, operates his sick dad's coffee and hot dog
truck near the old station and is desperate to talk. Boy, does he like to
talk. Olivia, played by Patricia Clarkson, nearly runs Fin over twice with
her SUV, then shows up at his door with a bottle of bourbon. She doesn't like
to talk, except to Fin. She's separated from her husband, living alone in
what was meant to be a weekend house, painting outsized portraits of grief, in
mourning for a dead child.

Fin doesn't invite their confessions, but they open up to him in their
loneliness as if they know he'll understand. He's the ultimate outsider.
"The Station Agent" is one of those sentimental movies in which the world
itself is cruelly indifferent. It's the characters who labor to warm it up.
They reach out compulsively, blurting out confidences. Then they get scared
and pull back or run. Along the way, every easy exchange comes to seem
blessed, like this one after Joe convinces Olivia to let him cook dinner for
her and Fin.

(Soundbite of "The Station Agent")

Mr. BOBBY CANNAVALE: (As Joe) Hey, Olivia, you got a garlic press?

Ms. PATRICIA CLARKSON: (As Olivia) No.

Mr. CANNAVALE: How come you don't have a garlic press?

Ms. CLARKSON: Still no.

Mr. CANNAVALE: All right. You keep talking. I'm going to go cook without
the garlic press.

Ms. CLARKSON: I'm not used to having people at my house, especially loud
people.

Mr. PETER DINKLAGE: (As Fin) It's a nice house.

Ms. CLARKSON: Yeah. David bought it as a getaway place, and we moved down
here and got away.

Mr. DINKLAGE: Where did you used to live?

Ms. CLARKSON: Princeton. I know. I didn't get very far. How about you?
What made you pick Newfoundland.

Mr. DINKLAGE: I wanted to live near Joe.

Mr. CANNAVALE: Guys, would you come up here and talk? Seriously, this sucks.

EDELSTEIN: The first-time director Tom McCarthy works in a deadpan minimalist
mode, like Scotland's Bill Forsythe. There's the faintest touch of whimsy
bordering on cute but never crossing that border. It helps that those trains
bring a touch of the exotic, or rather, the feelings that Fin and his new
friends have for them, the way they check the trains comings and goings with
stopwatches or spend days walking or reading alongside the tracks. The score,
by Stephen Trask, is all soft, pretty banjos. Then out of nowhere, you can't
quite believe what you're hearing. A theremin begins to noodle, then fades
away like a passing locomotive.

The movie tickles you with its sudden mystical intimacies and with its actors.
The 4'6" Dinklage has a brooding presence, a face that can surprise you with
its classical handsomeness, a voice that's improbably deep. Cannavale's
muscle-bound doofus is a marvel of cocky insecurity, and Patricia Clarkson, I
wouldn't mind if she were in every movie. McCarthy goes off-key in only one
scene, in a bar where Fin drinks himself into a stupor and drunkenly harangues
the crowd. It's bad because that anger is implicit. Anyway, the rant was
funnier in "Living in Oblivion."

"The Station Agent" ends very fast, at a point where you're ready to hang out
with it a while. It leaves you the way American movies almost never do:
relaxed, receptive, happy in the moment, not even caring if your train comes
in.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.

(Credits)

BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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