Robert Krulwich on Seltzer and a Pear Painting

As NPR ‘s Science Correspondent and co-host of Radiolab, Robert Krulwich has been lauded for his entertaining explanations and his flare for on-air teaching, which have earned him an Emmy. He regularly appears on Nightline, ABC News Tonight and Good Morning America. TV Guide has lauded him “the most inventive network reporter in television,” a due compliment for a guy who can set his audience straight on topics from fuel cells and hydrogen-powered cars to secrets of the genetic code and nanotechnology—all the while keeping even the snoring kid in the back of the classroom on the edge of his seat. Suffice it to say, we’d be lost in space without him, and because he’s used a banana to demonstrate the structure of DNA, we wondered if he likes to play with his food.

What do you eat for breakfast?

My breakfasts are recently very influenced by a new yogurt that comes in a cylinder that has ribs on the inside. I think it’s called YoFarm: I think I ate ‘em all up. I like putting the spoon on the inside of the plastic and rubbing. It’s not eating; it’s a tactile sensation. I like the taste of the yogurt very much. It sits so incredibly well in the fridge. I’d thought 68 cents was the actual value of yogurt forever—when it goes up from 68 cents I feel like I’m getting short-changed. I say to Dannon, “no.” This YoFarm thing stayed under a $1, and you can scratch the inside for like 20 minutes, which is not everybody’s thing.

Breakfast would also include going to Nussbaum and Wu, which mixes sushi with bagels. I will sometimes get their bagels, which Ilike very much. They have a nice heft and are just a teeny bit too much, so you don’t have to finish them. I always finish them, but you don’t have to. They have many flavors, but I always get plain. I went through my raisin phase, but then I went back to basics. I think you should measure a bagel by its texture and not by things like sesame seeds. I only think that for about four minutes, ask me again in half an hour.

How do you approach eating in restaurants?

My eating is very rapid. So the main thing I have to do in a restaurant is concentrate on not eating. If I’m not careful I’ll eat 12 of the 13 pieces of bread almost without noticing it, inadvertently. Hamburgers can go down in nanoseconds. It’s weird really; it’s sort of the inner third grader.

How does all your science knowledge and curiosity impact the way you think about food?

A banana has an enormous number of genes in common with me, but I don’t think that while I’m eating. My work has not crossed over into my eating. I think I approach eating somewhat absentmindedly.

Tell us about your collection of bowls.

My wife makes bowls all the time. This house is completely filled with bowls. I’ll buy various berries … I’ll pour them into her bowls as essentially bowl accessories, and put them in the fridge and think “wow, what a beautiful thing I’ve created.” Then I’ll eat the berries in about 12 seconds.

Tell us about the Stoned Wheat Thins.

I don’t know what stoned means, it has a suggestion of inebriation. I used to like Triscuits, but I’m on my 32nd year of stoned wheat thins. I like to eat them with thin slices of cheese, or not-sothin slices of cheese.

I do have one secret recipe that I use just for myself. It’s stubby carrots wrapped in Nova salmon and eaten rapidly. Certain people feel that’s very expensive to go into the fridge to take large gobs of expensive stuff and wrap it around carrots.

I had one cooking thought about 21 years ago, which I tasted somewhere else, but I did make it myself again and again. Take a fresh fig, slice it into four parts, put balsamic vinegar on top, lay it in a bed of spinach, add something green on top, like that “B” word you find in the herb garden that’s made into pesto?

And the King Oscar Sardines?

A member of the royal house of Norway. I’ve never tried this version. You get a certain food group that you like, like M&M’s, then they decide “maybe almonds.” The first time I had an almond M&M’s, I thought, this is actually an improvement on the peanut M&M’s. But I do feel it would somehow be wrong to leave the peanut behind, so I stagger them. The King Oscar sardine is a question of whether you want one layer or two. It’s important to find a food that no one else in your house likes. Like Fig Newtons. If you get another type of food that you both like, you suffer; it’s risky. If these were Fig Newtons, they’d remain exactly in the order and quantity that I’d left them.

What else is in your pantry?

I very much like Uncle Ben’s. You know, when they give you a seasoning pack? I know how to boil the rice so it doesn’t burn at the bottom. And adding the seasoning pack feels a little bit like cooking.

There are some bottles I just like having in the kitchen because they’re so beautiful. You never eat them or open them. There was one barbecue sauce bottle of a man making a horrible face because the sauce was so hot. Here it is. Look at this. THIS is what I call a bottle. I have no recollection of opening it, as you can see it’s been petrified. With a thing like this, it could never be as scary to eat as to think about eating.

Every time I look at the Harrods tea I remember a mentee of mine who gave it to me.

When you want to consume it, you have to put it in this thing, which is a little too complicated. I can tell you how deficient it is. It’s quite hard for ordinary people like me just to make tea. I take the tea and put it in the strainer/submarine-like object. Now it’s still closed, but this is puzzling to me, because the tea is entering the water although there appears to be a locked strainer. There’s nothing about this lock that appears in any way tricky.

Or there are problems with language, you look in the [cook] book, and there’s a word like sauté—I don’t know what it means. Whatever I choose it to mean—under the fire, in the oven with a fire at a distance—it’s never the right one. Then there’s dinner. You go and buy chicken at the store, put it in a pan, squeeze lemons onto the chicken, rub it with garlic, put rosemary on top of the wet chicken, then for an unclear period of time you put it in the stove, and wait and wait and wonder if it’s too early or too late. The people you’re serving complain that: a) it should have been given to them a long time earlier, or, b) it’s too red, or, c) sometimes it’s okay and that’s as good as it gets.

Do you cook anything else other than chicken?

I also for a while cooked something that I found in a cookbook, until I ran out of olive paste. The other thing is soups, because my wife likes to freeze things a lot. The question is, can you remember that they’re there? Say you have six bagels and eat two. Should you: a) leave them on the counter and then they get hard, or, b) put them in bags in the freezer where, when you want bread, you wont think of looking unless you live, you know, in an avalanche?

One of married life’s more interesting moments is do you pluck ice cubes one at a time so there are fewer and fewer of them, or remove all at once, which I think is the proper way. The answer is that you take them all out, and people who don’t agree with this are just wrong.

What’s in your refrigerator? Some cheese?

The thing about cheeses is that there are people who know cheese and buy the right cheese, and then you go into the store and there are so many that you get cheese that looks like it might be the right cheese. I see a cheese that has a dark anything in it and I think it’s Morbier. Fresh Direct will give you cheeses in these wrappers within wrappers within wrappers. An outer wrapper, and a second wrapper and a third. As a nation we might want to do one wrap less at least.

What else do you like to eat?

My general feeling is that I like large vulgar explosions of taste. So a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee—which just really says “I am coffee”—or a Peter Luger porterhouse steak, I imagine it has an exclamation point like a Broadway show, nicer for me than one of those restaurants with a big white plate with a tiny bit of supposedly delicious food. Those big white plate places: It’s like people who can read the stock pages and in them see short stories, rivalries, business opportunities, comedy, pathos, stupidity, a whole set of experiences, there are people who can do that with food, I have somehow been handicapped. I put it in my mouth, smash down my teeth and it’s over. It’s a slam-bam-thank-youma’am kind of a thing.

There’s a Prêt A Manger brownie, oh my God, it’s so good; every day at 4 p.m. I go for a coffee, there’s the brownie that I can’t have. It would make me fat and ugly. I break down every seventh time maybe. Or sometimes I’ll say I won’t have coffee for two days, and then I’ll have the brownie.

We buy seltzer by the flat from Fresh Direct. I like to drink it plain with ice. It’s hard to let it get cold, because you drink it right away, but then the ice melts and I like to think that little bits of seltzer are hidden in there.

Why do you have that pear painting by Amy Cheng?

We met by chance. I saw apricots, an earlier painting, in a magazine and called her up. It was impossibly expensive, but a few years she painted pears. I love to eat pears. We have a house on Shelter Island, and out there last fall there was a pear—the kind of juicy, drip-down-your-mouth pears that you didn’t think were there anymore.