Lessons in Chemistry


This page written circa 18 November, 2023.

I majored in chemistry at high school. The chemistry teacher ("the greengrocer", long since forgotten his real name) was way better than the physics teacher (who won prizes for boring). I recall we had a ball.

I learnt to cook all in a rush when I left Wesley college and entered the Pyrmont Bridge Rd sharehouse with Philippa, Louise, and Gordon. I tackled the task as I had learnt to tackle research projects in engineering: Read the literature, get your hands dirty. I bought cookbooks, read up on recipes, planned ahead. I remember Philippa giving me hints on chopping onions. Years later, this memory was triggered as I watched Julie & Julia, the scene where Meryl Streep's Julia Child chops a mountain of onions. Mastering the Art of French Cooking was one of the books into which I dived. The Womens Weekly cookbooks were another great source.

My friend Eric is the first person I recall saying "Cooking is just chemistry". The tone implied that chemistry was harder than cooking. I had thought that myself, and here was another person who held that view. These days I am less disdainful, knowing and loving On Food And Cooking: The Science And Lore Of The Kitchen and sites like Serious Eats. Plus now Lessons in Chemistry.

The thing is that Lessons in Chemistry is not about lessons in chemistry, or cooking. It is about misogyny, prejudice in general, America in the 1950s, and it presents an icon of female strength and independence. I love it.

I grew up going to a school where the default and automatic attitude was racist and misogynous. I had a vocabulary that embodied both anti-semitic and generally prejudiced attitudes, although I did not hold those views. We called our chemistry teacher "The Greengrocer" because he looked Mediterranean, and mostly the greengrocers in Sydney were Greek and Italian. To be honest they were better at it than the locals. When the Lebanese arrived in numbers (Lebanese civil war time?) I adored the Middle-Eastern food and coffee. They made better cakes. I had no idea their homeland was being destroyed.

We tended to call each other by strange nicknames too. I was "sparks" when I got to college (something about burning electronic gadgets), and "gollywog" (owing to the afro hair) in the labs at uni. Something like Wooster's friends in "Jeeves and Wooster". Poking fun with no malice.

I have got in a lot of trouble over the years for this, it now comes to light. My friend Sinduja's response was something to the effect of "tell them to grow a thicker skin". One old friend referred to this apparent desire to interpret anything ambiguous in the worst possible way as "Meron's disease". With hindsight this was unfair to Meron, who, in my case at least, pointed out that my comment could be taken that way. She was probably greeted with my eyes rolling. I have always hoped that I might be judged on my actions, not my words. That takes longer, and requires that the listener not be too sensitive.

To the many people it is reported I have grossly offended, from Jack to Kay and a bunch in between, I apologise. I don't think you should have been, but I am sorry you were. Meron, thank you for trying.

Nevertheless, I do hold a view of disdain for political correctness and woke over-reaction. There are people who seem over-sensitive. Elon is right, it's like a virus. No constitution I know provides anyone with a right to not be offended.

Nick supplies the following marvellous additional information:
The physics teacher was H.T.O. Jones. Really. I am assured. Can't imagine how I could have forgotten.
The greengrocer, also remembered as 'Aldo' (not his real name either), became mayor of Randwick. Good on him. Mr G informs that he has just celebrated his diamond wedding anniversary. Congratulations.

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