WE HAVE long been taught to marvel at the thermal arrangements which keep the body temperature of otherwise dissimilar human beings at precisely 98.6 degrees. Why 98.6 is a better level than 70 or 118 need not concern us here. Much as we might wish to live hotter or cooler, we continue to be a 98.6 species, and this, we are assured, is all to the good.
But equally important, although receiving little or no attention in our schoolbooks, is another peculiar stabilizer, which affects our psychological processes. This control enables us, unlike the lower animals, to believe earnestly in all sorts of things which have no foundation whatever in fact; and in the variety of occasions on which it is called upon to function it seems far more remarkable than any mere thermostat. Scientists know this apparatus only as “the switch,” and they are undecided as to its location in the human system.
My first realization of the switch came at age fourteen, when I was convalescing from an appendectomy. The surgeon, an old family friend, invited me to a dinner party, where I spent the evening chain-smoking cigarettes. We were not allowed to smoke at all at school, which caused us to smoke incessantly away from school. My performance was obviously excessive, even to me, and the surgeon queried me amiably as I was lighting my dozenth or fifteenth cigarette.
“Aren’t you smoking rather a lot?”
The question was reasonable, but my answer must have seemed less so: the single monosyllable, firmly enunciated, “No.”
Since that time, I have seen many switch-induced phenomena. It is what permits fat men to deny the scales; it sustains children against suggestions that their hands need washing; it is the mainstay of salesmen, alcoholics, and politicians. Cookery is an especially rich field for the contraryto-fact utterance, and two fine examples come to mind from the kitchen.
A powerful argument with a friend over how to scramble eggs underlay one of these examples. I was expounding bacon fat instead of butter, no cream or milk whatever; and although I preferred a heavy iron skillet over a low flame, I was willing to admit the merits of the double-boiler or chafingdish method. The point on which I stood adamant was the rejection of cream or milk, however small the amount. It tends to curdle, I held, and this produces a watery, spongy result with a considerable flavor of scalded milk. Scrambled eggs of this sort turn the toast soggy, but my arguments were to no purpose. My opponent proceeded to beat the eggs and douse in the cream.
“They will curdle,” I told him.
“Impossible, the way I do it.”
The eggs did in fact curdle. The final product, which my friend served with the greatest satisfaction, was awash with a half-cupful of whey.
“What is that?” I asked him.
“What is what?” he responded.
“That watery stuff that you have left in the saucepan.”
“Oh that,” said my friend. “That is nothing. Nothing at all.”
“No,” he said. “It’s just a little juice.”
More spectacular was the switch demonstration which another friend gave me by cooking some meat cakes. My own version of a proper meat cake, which he had seemed to enjoy, was simple enough: top of the round, with all fat and gristle trimmed off, finely ground, flattened out somewhat to the area of a bun, and fried in butter, with frequent turnings, over a low flame.
My friend proposed to cook his meat cakes over coals on an outdoor grill. The fire seemed to be right, but I noticed that he was using not ground lean round steak but a package of quick-frozen beef “patties.” It was a variation from my method, he said, but he had happened on a particular brand which was entirely free from fat, and he had taken some pains to get the same brand this time.
He opened the package and stripped away a layer of paper. Absolutely no fat, he said, extending the top patty for my inspection. It was gray, flecked with pink, and although I judged it to contain an outrageous amount of fat — at least 50 per cent — I said nothing. The rest of the package yielded identical patties, and my friend laid them out on the grill. It was hard to find meat cakes so free from fat, he remarked.
The meat had hardly begun to thaw, over the coals, when hissing and smoking of explosive proportions set in. The fat, dripping as if from spigots, was flaming up spectacularly. Too hot a fire, my friend said. He made no mention of fat, and he raised the grill into slots a couple of inches higher. The coals continued to flame wildly. The patties, diminishing to a fraction of their original size, were becoming mere lozenges about the size of a silver dollar. My friend decided that they were “done.” I agreed.
How the fiction of leanness could be preserved as we sat down to eat was more than I could imagine. To say nothing further about it would be to acknowledge what had actually occurred to his chef-d’oeuvre, and my friend had no such intention. He retrieved the label from the package of meat patties and handed it to me.
“That’s what to ask for, the next time you want meat cakes,” he said. “I don’t know why more places don’t carry this brand. Absolutely no fat in them.”