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Historian David Mccullough

Historian David Mccullough is the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Truman. His new book is the biography of founding father and second President of the United States. The book is John Adams.


Other segments from the episode on May 22, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 22, 2001: Interview with David McCullough; Interview with Russ Parsons.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: David McCullough talks about the lives of John Adams,
Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

You may know my guest David McCullough for his work hosting the PBS series
"Smithsonian World" and "The American Experience." He won a Pulitzer Prize
for his biography of Truman.

A few years ago, he set out to write a book about the relationship between
Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. As he got deeper into the
research, he realized that Adams' papers and his correspondences with his
wife, Abigail, were much more forthcoming than Jefferson's writings and that
Adams was a more sympathetic figure than historians often portrayed him. So
McCullough changed his project into a biography of John Adams. It's just been

McCullough describes Adams as the person who did the most to drive the
Declaration of Independence through the Continental Congress in 1776. He
served as vice president under George Washington and was elected the second
president of the United States. His son, John Quincy, was the sixth
president. I asked McCullough why Adams was so determined to have the
Colonies win their independence from England, even though he knew that the
fight for independence would be long and bloody.

Mr. DAVID McCULLOUGH: He, almost alone, of all those of that time, saw that
it was going to be a long, costly and bloody war. He thought it would last 10
years. As it turned out, it lasted eight years, so he wasn't very far off.
Many people, Jefferson among them, thought it would all be over quite
quickly and that we would win rather easily, which, of course, was worse than
wishful thinking. He believed that we must have independence because he
believed that independence was the only way we would have freedom. When they
say `free and independent,' the `free' is dependent on the independence. We
must be independent of all other foreign powers, including the mother country,
if you will, Great Britain, in order to attain the kind of freedom that they
envisioned, that they demanded.

GROSS: What were the ways in which he felt the British were intruding on his
personal freedoms and his personal life and the lives of the people he was
closest to?

Mr. McCULLOUGH: He felt that the British were intruding on their personal
lives by--and the lives of people in his community, of his only family by
taxation, by the occupation presence in Boston of British troops, which he
took to be an insult, and, of course, for which they were being taxed in
order to cover the cost. He felt that the fundamental rights of an English
citizen were being violated. It wasn't that he wanted to attain something
beyond what an Englishman's rights were considered to be. He wanted to hold
on, as did so many of that time--hold on to what they felt was the basic way
of life, the basic freedom that his forebearers had achieved, both as English
subjects and by establishing a new way of life; a new country, of a kind, on
this side of the Atlantic.

Remember, he's a fourth generation citizen of Massachusetts. Many people
somehow don't remember or know that--or appreciate that the country--the
settlement of this country was long before the Revolutionary War. Also, that
the Revolutionary War began more than a year before the Declaration of
Independence--very important to understand. It wasn't that the Declaration
of Independence then ignited a war. War had already ignited, so by the time
they're at Philadelphia in 1776, a lot of blood has been spilled. And he had
no misconceptions about the fact that the British intended to crush the
American Revolution with force, with bloodshed, with power and that anybody
who thought otherwise was deluding themselves.

GROSS: What did he tell the--his fellow members of the Continental Congress
to convince them that it was important to have a revolution and to have a
Declaration of Independence?

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Well, he gave what was the greatest speech of his career and
the greatest speech given in the Continental Congress and maybe one of the
greatest and certainly one of the most important speeches ever given in
American history. And we have no record of it. We really aren't sure what he
said because no records were kept. Nobody was writing it down. It was all
conducted behind closed doors in secrecy because of the very fear of Tories
and spies in Philadelphia, but he was, in effect, saying that we must stand up
for our liberties and we must join in this declaration because it's only
through a Declaration of Independence--independence from Britain--that is
going to enable us to unite in spirit; that it will do wonders for the morale
of our army, of our fighting forces. And it will guarantee--or perhaps it
won't guarantee--it will certainly make it more likely that we can get support
from abroad; namely, from France.

In other words, France--until we issued the Declaration of Independence, the
chances of getting financial and even military support from France were going
to be very, very slight. But once we broke away from England; once we
declared our intention of breaking away from England, the support from France
could well be forthcoming.

The French weren't about to come in to help a revolution or an uprising that
was on the verge of making accommodation. The French came in to support the
American Revolution primarily--this is the French government--the king of
France and his ministers came into the American Revolution because it was a
way at getting at England; of sticking it to England. They weren't in favor
of representation--a democratic representation. They didn't believe that all
men were created equal, by no means, and their monarchy was, if anything, more
rigid, more established, less admirable than the monarchy of Great Britain.

GROSS: On July 2nd, 1776, when the Constitutional Convention voted to accept
the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote, `This will be the most
memorable epic in the history of America. It ought to be solemnized with
pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, bells, bonfires and illuminations
from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward,
forevermore.' In a way, he's describing the Fourth of July celebrations that
have happened ever since.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Exactly. He--and he's the only one who said that then. Now
that doesn't mean that others didn't feel it. And maybe they did. Maybe
they felt it as much or more than he did, but they didn't say so. He said so
in these--in one of the hundreds of letters that he wrote to Abigail. There
are more than 1,000 letters between them, and that is the kind of outpouring
that appears frequently. And it's, of course, of great importance and it
suggests what kind of fervor was felt at the time.

The Fourth of July which we celebrate now, he wouldn't have understood that.
That was the date on the document, itself, but the actual vote took place on
the 2nd and the signing of the Declaration of Independence didn't take place
until later, August 8th. And then--even then, not everybody signed. Many
people weren't there. They were still signing on into the fall and later on.
And, in fact, there's very little record of what either Adams or Jefferson
even did on July 4th.

GROSS: After the Declaration of Independence, Adams' town of Braintree chose
him as a delegate to the state Constitutional Convention. Now the national
Constitution had not yet been written. You describe this state constitution,
the Massachusetts Constitution, as one of Adams' most admirable and
long-standing achievements, and you also describe this constitution as being
the longest functioning, written constitution in the world. What did
he--what kind of principles did he lay down in this constitution?

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Well, he laid down, essentially, what our own national
Constitution stipulates. And he did so 10 years in advance of our national
Constitution. The--it did not, however, provide for freedom of religion and
years later, in his 80s, when there was a Constitutional Convention organized
in Massachusetts to see what revisions would be necessary for the
constitution of the state, Adams went and battled to make freedom of religion
part of the Constitution and failed to succeed and wrote to Jefferson that he
must--`I must be getting old because I've lost my powers of persuasion.' And
he was very down about that. Jefferson applauded him for having the courage
and the decency to go and fight for what was right.

It has a pre--it has a Bill of Rights, like our Constitution. It sets up a
structure; a three-part system of government, which is very similar to what we
have now. The executive is the commander in chief. There is a Legislature
that's divided into a House and a Senate and so forth. It's--and it has also
in it--and I think this is so important--a clause or paragraph unlike that in
any constitution written before or since, in which he says, `It shall be the
duty'--and the key word is `duty'--`the duty of the government to provide
education for everybody.'

And then he goes on to specify what he means by education. And what he says,
in effect, is that `By education, I mean everything; agriculture, finance,
art, the sciences, mathematics, literature, etc., etc. and that it shall be,
again, `the duty of this system of education to cherish literature and the
arts. And it shall be the duty of education in the Commonwealth to encourage
good spirit among the people and good humor among the people.'

It's an amazing paragraph, which he was quite proud of and which he was quite
sure would not be passed by the Legislature of Massachusetts. As it turned
out, it was passed. It was not only passed, it was passed unanimously and is
still part of the Constitution.

GROSS: Now in the Constitution that John Adams wrote, he wrote that `all men
were born equally free and independent,' which isn't exactly the same as
saying, `All men are born free and equal.' Why did he object to the
Jeffersonian idea of all men being born free and equal?

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Well, Jefferson said, `All men are born'--you know, `All men
are born equal.' Adams didn't believe that. He didn't believe we're all
born equal because he said, `All you have to do is look around and you can see
that some people are born with more advantages than others. Some are
stronger; some are better looking; some have the luck of being born into
wealth or advantages of all kinds. Some people are handicapped at birth.'
What he said and what he held to be his fundamental principle all of his life
is that while all men may not be equal, they are all equal before the law and
all equal in the eyes of God.

GROSS: My guest is historian David McCullough. His new book is a biography
of John Adams. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough. And
his new book is a biography of John Adams.

Adams was chosen as a minister to France during the Revolution. What was his
role in negotiating the peace treaty that ended the Revolutionary War, which
he helped to start?

Mr. McCULLOUGH: He was one of three of our representatives at the peace
treaty. Benjamin Franklin and John Jay were the two others. And they were,
by European standards, neophytes as diplomats. They were untrained. No one
from the United States was really trained as a diplomat as were, say, the
great diplomats of Europe. They had none of that background. They didn't see
the world the same--quite the same way. And one would assume, therefore, that
they went into those negotiations and had been negotiating through the war
with the handicap of being neophytes. But they did extremely well.

In many ways, it was one of the most advantageous treaties that we ever
signed. It was signed in Paris. It's known as the Treaty of Paris, 1783.
And the most important of all achievements of the treaty was, of course, the
independence of the country. That the--it is the independent United States of
America--and that its geographic terrain, its boundaries, reached to the
Mississippi River, which was in--by no means, certain before the treaty was
signed. And it made--it doubled the size of what the Colonies had been so
that it was--really had become an empire; a geographic presence of great
importance just for the signing of that treaty.

GROSS: He read the Constitution while he was in London serving as
ambassador. He was critical about some parts of the Constitution. For
instance, he wanted the president to have more power. Exactly what did he
want for the president and why did he want it?

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Well, he believed in a strong executive and he believed that
the Constitution did not provide a strong enough executive office. He felt
that that was the only way you were going to hold together these very
different and disparate Colonies--13 Colonies. Jefferson, by contrast,
wanted a weaker presidency and more power in the Legislature. And in this
they differed.

Adams also wanted a Bill of Rights. There was no--initially, as you know, no
Bill of Rights. Jefferson, though he later said there should be a Bill of
Rights, when he first read the Constitution, did not object to the fact that
there were--there was no Bill of Rights. Adams strongly endorsed the new
Constitution and said so by letter home. Jefferson was equivocal about the
new Constitution. So I think those are the principle differences.

GROSS: Adams said of Jefferson, about the difference between the two of them,
`You are afraid of the one; I of the few. We agree perfectly that the many
should have full, fair and perfect representation. You are apprehensive of
monarchy; I of aristocracy. I would, therefore, have given more power to the
presidency and less to the Senate.' Can you describe that split a little bit
more; why Adams felt that, whereas Jefferson was afraid of monarchy, Adams was
afraid of aristocracy?

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Well, Jefferson was fearful that the presidency would become
fixed; that it could lead to monarchy; that it could lead to a king. And, of
course, the king was the only way the people had ever lived under. That was
what everyone was accustomed to and that the country might resort to that, if
things got difficult or contentious.

Adams was more concerned about what he called the aristocracy, which he saw as
being the Senate, and he was worried that there were certain people who would
naturally gain control because they had more education. They had more money.
They had more connections; influence--whatever anyone wishes to call it--and
that the best way to control them was to contain them in the Senate. And when
he talks about trusting the many, he's talking about the representation--the
direct representation in the House. So he wanted a weaker Senate and a
stronger executive. Jefferson was more inclined to the reverse.

GROSS: Jefferson and Adams were partners in creating a revolution in America
and in, you know--in writing the Declaration of Independence--or at least in
conceiving the Declaration of Independence. Adams became the second
president. Jefferson was his vice president. Then they ran against each
other and Jefferson won in that election. How did they end up becoming
enemies after being such close partners?

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Well, primarily because Jefferson made no effort to be of
any help to Adams when Jefferson was serving as Adams' vice president, and
because Jefferson was an ardent Republican, as they said then--the Republican
Party at that time later became the Democratic Party of our time--and was very
much involved with the politics of the Republican Party behind the scenes.
And, as it turned out, later on it was discovered that Jefferson had been
paying the man who was attacking Adams most viciously in the press, the famous
scandal-monger James Callender. And when that became known, it was crushing
for Adams, personally. His friend had betrayed him.

And Abigail really never forgave Jefferson for that. It's, I think, much to
Adams credit that Adams was willing to forgive. I'm not sure he ever forgot,
but he certainly did forgive. And they had a reconciliation after they had
each retired from the presidency, brought about through their mutual friend
Benjamin Rush. And that's when the great correspondence between Jefferson and
Adams commenced, in 1812, and lasted until the end of their lives in 1825.

GROSS: John Quincy Adams was the first son of a president to become a
president. George W. Bush is the second. In the remaining minute that we
have, any comparisons you could make?

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Well, there are some comparisons. The father--in both
cases, the father is very extremely fond of the son. The son fond of the
father. Both John Quincy and President Bush had strong mothers, to say the
least. They both, John Quincy and President Bush, had the benefit of a
privileged education. Beyond that, the similarities begin to become less

To say that George Bush Sr. and George W. Bush are not the equals of John
Adams and John Quincy Adams is not quite fair. I'm not sure anybody today is
the equal of John Adams and John Quincy Adams. They were two of the most
brilliant human beings who ever became president. I think if you gave all the
presidents of the United States an IQ test, that John Quincy Adams might come
in first. He wasn't a particularly strong or effective president, but he was
brilliant and maybe the best secretary of State we ever had, and a man of
great humanity, beneath what seemed, to many, a rather austere manner.

GROSS: Any final thought you'd like to leave us with about John Adams?

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Yes. I think that no one can really understand John Adams
and the kind of human being he was without understanding his marriage and
Abigail. She is the key, not just to much of what life in that time was
like, but what kind of idealism he followed. They were people of principle.
I think one of--one example of that is that John Adams was the only Founding
Father who never owned a slave, on principle. And Abigail was in full
agreement with him on it.

GROSS: Well, David McCullough, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Thank you very much.

GROSS: David McCullough is the author of a new biography of John Adams. I'm
Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: 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 of The Los
Angeles Times and author of the new book "How to Read a French Fry."

(Soundbite of music)

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Interview: Russ Parsons discusses the science of cooking

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Eating out a lot has taught many Americans to be knowledgeable about ordering
subtle and complex dishes from around the world, but it has 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' new book is called "How to Read a French
Fry: And Other Stories of Intriguing Kitchen Science." He's also food editor
of the Los Angeles Times. 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, 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.

GROSS: 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: 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 in 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 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 with 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, and you'll have all of these delicious flavors from the oil because
good oil is essentially delicious, which is why we fry so many foods in it.

Then when it gets into the runaway stage, what'll happen is you'll see 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's an old oil flavor that's not very attractive.

GROSS: Everything you're saying sounds very familiar. I don't mean the
information, I mean the descriptions of the french fries.

Mr. PARSONS: Well, see, that's one of the really fascinating things about
this is this is all stuff that when you cook that you recognize it down the
road. What this does is kind of explain to you why it's happening and, you
know, in a way, kind of summing up 20 years of making cooking mistakes and
explaining, `Oh, here's what went wrong,' so that it's a little bit like a
cooking course.

GROSS: My guest is Russ Parsons, author of the new book "How to Read a French
Fry." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest Russ Parsons is food editor of the LA Times and author of a
new book about kitchen science called "How to Read a French Fry."

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 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--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

We're coming up into the time of year now when we're gonna get lots of peaches
and nectarines. And 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. And as those cells break down,
again we get that combination and recombination of different chemical
compounds, so the flavor is more complex. It won't be sweeter, because once
something is picked from the plant, it doesn't accumulate more sugar, but it
can taste sweeter and will definitely taste better and the texture will be

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 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 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 has what you've learned about meat and muscles affected the
way you cook meat?

Mr. PARSONS: One of my problems that I used to have a lot, especially with
braising, was that I would add too much liquid. And understanding how the
braising process works--again we're talking about cooking with moisture added
to it. What the moisture does in this case is that instead of breaking down
the cellulose--obviously meat doesn't have cellulose--it helps break down the
connective tissue. But you just need enough to make the container really,
really humid inside when it's heated. So you don't need--it's not a soup and
it's not gonna reduce very much, so kind of figuring out how that worked.

It's also important for when you're making stews and braises and things like
that to know that if you don't brown the meat beforehand, it's not gonna brown
at all. And that's because you're cooking it with moisture present. As long
as there's moisture present, that temperature is never gonna get--even if it's
in a 350-degree oven, you know, you're cooking it in a dutch oven or something
like that, the way you do for a braise, a covered pan, the temperature inside
that pan is never gonna get above 212 degrees because of the moisture, until
all of that is evaporated. So it's never gonna brown. You need to brown it
beforehand if you want those kind of really delicious browned flavors.

GROSS: My guest is Russ Parsons, author of the new book "How to Read a French
Fry." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Russ Parsons, food editor of the LA Times and author of a
new book about kitchen science called "How to Read a French Fry."

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: Would you share an easy-to-make, easy-to-describe fish recipe?

Mr. PARSONS: Yeah. Here's a great one. I learned this from Paula Wolfert,
actually, who's a great friend and a great cookbook writer who lives in
Sonoma. It's really good at this time of year, too, because it uses salmon,
which is--salmon is kind of--has become kind of the poultry of the fish world
because it's farmed so much. It's always in the stores. It's always a fairly
reliable product. But at this time of year, the salmon begin their spawning
runs, and so this is when the wild salmon season starts. Wild salmon is kind
of--it's lower in fat, but it's got a much--it's got a denser texture and, I
think it's got more flavor than regular salmon.

So what you do is you take a salmon filet; skin it. You can have the
fishmonger do that. Put it on a cookie sheet; stick it in a 300-degree oven
over a pan of--like a baking pan full of boiling water. What you're actually
doing is kind of converting the oven to a really low temperature steamer. And
what's gonna--and what you'll find is that the--it'll take 20 or 30 minutes to
be done. You can look at it. There--the doneness point on this is very long.
It'll take it a long time to overcook because it's in a very moist
environment. But what you'll find is that the salmon retains that kind of
beautiful orange color even though it's cooked all the way through. And what
you end up with is a salmon with a great kind of voluptuous texture and a
really deep flavor. And it can be served either--you can do this either hot
or serve it at room temperature. You can do it just as you would a steamed
salmon, except the flavor's better and the texture's better.

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

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

GROSS: Russ Parsons is food editor of The LA Times and author of the new
book "How to Read a French Fry."

(Closing credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

I want to remind you that on Friday we'll pay tribute to Susannah McCorkle, a
great jazz singer who died over the weekend. We'll close today's show with
her recording of "Taking a Chance on Love."

(Soundbite of Susannah McCorkle singing "Taking a Chance on Love")

Ms. SUSANNAH McCORKLE: (Singing) Here I go again, hearin' trumpets blow
again. All the glow again, takin' a chance. Here I slide again, about to
take that ride again. Starry eyed again, takin' a chance. This game I'm
takin' a crack at needs good luck for me, so now I'm takin' a crack at any
black cat that I see. Here I'm booked again. In the swim and hooked again.
This goose of mine is cooked again, takin' a chance.
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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