Monday, 6 August 2012

Dear Tom Stoppard (1937 - ),

Very few writers care about math.

There are excellent reasons for this. At school, those who gravitate towards English probably do so partly because they love words, but partly because they don't love numbers. This is not a firm rule, of course (and in my own School Certificate exams, I scored 1% less in English than Maths) but based on the poets, writers, and literary scholars I've met, it's fairly reliable. Not set in stone, maybe, but at least in wobbly gelatine.

But there are excellent reasons against this as well. Sure, Wordsworth wrote about how lovely daffodils can be, and that's great. Good for him. But mathematicians look at a sunflower and plot how the placement of the seeds in its centre follows the Fibonacci sequence; and they notice that same 'golden spiral' appears on pineapples, pinecones, in the family trees of honeybees, and in the Romanesco cauliflower. (Read "The Golden Ratio" by Mario Livio!) The mysteries of mathematical flora and fauna must be at least as beautiful and poetic as the "sprightly dance" of Wordsworth's daffodils.


The more I study how scientific and mathematical paradigm shifts are represented in literary texts, the more I realise just how the sciences and arts perform the same functions. You, for instance Mr. Stoppard, have explored all sorts of scientific ideas in your works, because they are, like the written story, lenses through which we view our world. In your play Arcadia, the brilliant and adorable 13-year-old budding mathematician Thomasina uses fractals (and chaos theory, and entropy, and astronomy, and so on) to understand the orderliness of the natural world, and on its coexisting chaos:

"Each week I plot your equations dot for dot, xs against ys in all manner of algebraical relation, and every week they draw themselves as commonplace geometry, as if the world of forms were nothing but arcs and angles. God's truth, Septimus, if there is an equation for a curve like a bell, there must be an equation for one like a bluebell, and if a bluebell, why not a rose?"

"When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round, making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backward, the jam will not come together again."

I like this a lot: the world of Arcadia is formulaic and predictable, yet beautiful, yet messy. Reminds me of my cooking.

Speaking of which, with the golden spiral as insipiration, it's time to make a mathematical supper. Since I don't have a Romanesco cauliflower, my dinner will not involve a Fibonacci sequence, but I console myself by remembering that even my pedestrian supermarket cauli still has a fractal structure.

Math: now 10% less glamorous!
In keeping with today's mathematical theme, dinner should involve not only fractals, but layers... gratin!
And in keeping with Thomasina's observation of the swirled jam, it should involve chaos... swirls of sprouts and other yummy bits and pieces!
Thus we have: Thomasina's orderly-chaotic mathematical hoki on potato-cauli gratin!

Kudos to me. I've taken a literary extract about boring rice pudding and, by reading it through a tenuous web of mathematical connotations, turned it into something less... gloopy. Next week: a quantum theoretical reading turns Oliver Twist's gruel into mille feuille.

Hoki on Potato-Cauliflower Gratin

Serves 2


1 tbsp olive oil
1 hoki fillet (or other white fish)
1/2 C sliced water chestnuts
4 small vine tomatoes, quartered
4 sliced mushrooms
Drizzle avocado oil
1/2 C sango sprouts

3 agria potatoes
1/2 head cauliflower
1/2 - 1C milk
1/2 leek
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 C finely grated pecorino cheese (or parmesan)


To make the gratin: preheat the oven to 180C. Finely slice the half leek, and jiggle the slices in a bowl of cold water to release any dirt that was trapped between the layers. Remove and dry on a paper towel. Mince the garlic. Heat the olive oil in a frypan, and sweat the leek slices and garlic until softened but not browned. Meanwhile, boil or steam the cauliflower until tender. Load the cooked cauliflower into a food processor with the oily leeks & garlic. Blend slowly, adding the milk in a fine stream through the feed tube, until the cauliflower is smooth. You're looking for a consistency that's thick enough to bind the gratin, but thin enough to pour. Once the cauliflower cream is done, scrub and slice the potatoes. Layer the potato slices in a baking dish, pouring a little cauliflower cream over each layer. Once you're layered up, sprinkle the pecorino (or other cheese) over the top and cover the whole thing with foil. Bake the gratin for around an hour, until the potatoes can be pierced easily with a sharp knife. Then remove the foil, switch the oven to grill, and grill until the cheese is browned and bubbly.

To cook the fish & other bits: heat the oil in a frypan. Toss the water chestnuts, tomato quarters, and mushrooms in the oil until browned. Set aside. Cook the fish until the sides are browned and the inside is white throughout - about 2 minutes each side. (Don't worry if it breaks up a bit, that just means it's fresh).

To serve: cut the gratin into small (around 5cm x 5cm) squares. Layer 2-3 squares on top of each other in a bowl, forming a little tower. This is important, because all fancy food is served in little towers:

(I did actually once make a tower of roasted vegetables with little carrot turrets, in honour of Bernard Black.)

Drizzle avocado oil around the squares. Arrange the fried tomatoes, mushrooms, and water chesnuts around the bowl, and add a few sango sprouts. Layer the hoki pieces on top of the gratin squares, and top with a few more sango sprouts. Serve with a cold glass of white wine, and eat over a reading of Arcadia - or if you're feeling less mathematically complex, Flatlands. 

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