The night of the party, Alfred was thoroughly preoccupied with the visiting director, the rest of the cast, and the excitement of performing again. He didn’t pay much attention to “The Case of the Mysterious Mushroom Caps,” but he did consider the question the next morning as he cleaned up the breakfast things.
It was quite a puzzle. The food served was certainly not prepared by a
caterer. They were all dishes from his own recipe book, the one his father
passed down when he agreed to go into service.
Alfred examined the stove and utensils and found no sign that anything in
the kitchen had been disturbed—until he looked for the recipe book itself and
found it wasn’t in its accustomed place.
At that moment, it ceased to be a mere puzzle and became a full-blown quest: Someone or something had tampered with his kitchen and his recipe book –and may the lord above have mercy on their souls.
A systematic search commenced of the manor’s endless cupboards, closets, and shelves. It turned up Master Dick’s 6th grade report card, the remnants of a balloon reading “Happy New Year 1966,” a ticket stub from the opening night of Oklahoma, and the discharge papers of one Colonel E. B. Wayne after World War I—but no recipe book.
Admitting defeat, Alfred resumed his regular chores—until he got to the Batcave. There, on Master Bruce’s worktable, between a Bunsen burner and a radar tube, was the Pennyworth recipe book, opened to Meringues—with several sheets of handwritten notes. There was a diagram of a cracked egg, with the notation: Whites: 90% H2O /10% protein. Create a colloid with granulated sucrose, solidify by exposing to heat.
He turned to the page on cheese puffs and saw this notation for preparing pastry: small amounts of H20 with unbleached flour to create a strong elastic gluten. Maillard reaction, in which sugars react with proteins.
Under scrambled eggs it said: Heating an egg causes compact proteins to unfold into long, spaghetti-like strands. These release amino acids, which form bonds with other protein strands, causing coagulation. Overcooking creates too many bonds between proteins, leading to a rapid loss of liquid.
At that moment, there was a series of tones that indicated one of the many automated systems was receiving instructions from the Batmobile relay. Alfred jumped as one of the beakers poured a yellow liquid into a oblong pan suspended over the burner, which simultaneously sprouted a four inch flame.
As the liquid began giving off the smell of clarified butter, the Batmobile pulled into the cave and Batman got out, walking immediately to the burner.
“Hi Alfred,” was the only comment as he uncorked a test-tube and added a pinch of green spice to the butter, then took a pre-made sandwich from the cave cooler and dropped it into the pan.
As it grilled, he looked up to see that Alfred wore the very model for his own no-nonsense We can do this the easy way or the hard way but you will give me answers and you’ll do it now bat-glare. A facetious answer (“start with a four cups of mushrooms”) like he’d given Dick and Tim was out of the question.
“I, uh, it was pointed out to me that if I can radiate ionized mercury trisulfate, I should be able to toast bread.”
“And was it Miss Selina who made this observation, sir?”
“Well…” Batman looked at his feet.
The preposterous notion that he’d been taking cooking lessons from CATWOMAN would never have occurred to the alternate-universe/killer-robot theorists, and if it had it certainly wouldn’t have calmed their fears. But Alfred’s speculations weren’t quite so outlandish, and he accepted Bruce’s sheepish non-denial with paternal affection.
It came out then, the whole story: Bruce hadn’t consciously assumed that all non-butlers were incompetents in the kitchen, but, at some point, he did dissociate such regular life-skills with “spandex-wearers.” It came as a nasty shock when he discovered Catwoman, who he considered more of an equal and certainly more of a contemporary than Dick or Barbara, was quite an accomplished cook. It pricked pride that she could do something he couldn’t.
The first attempt to remedy the situation was not productive. He’d presented himself at the public library as the most exaggerated caricature on an aristo-idiot, and asked for a book—or preferably a video—on “exactly what you have to do to dead animals and plants to make them fit for human beings to eat.” The librarian gave him a copy of COOKING FOR DUMMIES. The book’s patronizing tone reinforced his mental block that cooking was something he simply couldn’t do. It couldn’t find words small enough or analogies simple enough to communicate with someone so stupid as to be reading its pages.
It was Selina who put an end to this nonsense with the remark about mercury trisulfate. He wasn’t really a dummy, and dumbing it down was not the solution. They tried the opposite approach: he watched her prepare a simple dish and translated each step into the terminology of the laboratory. He analyzed each ingredient, put each under a microscope in its cooked and uncooked states, mapping out in his mind the precise reactions they underwent…
Alfred’s eyes glazed slightly as Bruce enthusiastically listed a number of these: the denaturization of proteins, sodium bicarbonate reacting with acid to make carbon dioxide, yeast cells digesting sugars and starches and releasing Co2 and water…
“As you say, sir,” Alfred attempted to derail the train so he could go to bed. But there’s no slowing an active mind when it’s latched onto a new idea, or, in this case, a new world of ideas to explore. Once he was past the initial hurdle, Bruce’s natural love of learning had kicked in. He would pour all his intellectual energies into the new discipline until he had mastered it as completely as any other.
As he flipped over his sandwich, Bruce continued his lecture about the chemical properties of various foodstuffs.
“Chocolate has some interesting properties. Heated to 85 degrees F, it liquefies…”
“Or ‘melts, ’
’” thought Alfred, despairingly.
“But if the temperature goes above 90, the cocoa butter molecules separate from the cocoa solids. If they break up completely the chocolate will never completely harden again.”
“As you say, sir.”