Food columnist wins top chemistry reporting award


If you’ve ever been curious about the science behind food and cooking, you might want to taste the wit and wisdom of Robert L. Wolke. As writer of the Washington Post’s biweekly column, “Food 101,” he has served up tantalizing and unusual topics such as how fruits ripen, how microwave ovens work, and the chemistries of chocolate, gravy and marshmallows, among others. In an entertaining and conversational style, he not only tackles the infinite mysteries of food, but the trained scientist sometimes resorts to actual experimentation in an attempt to debunk Old Wives’ Tales that pose such questions as “Can you fry eggs on a sidewalk?” or “Can adding raw potatoes save a salty soup?” Wolke even throws in a dash of food history, but he generally eschews nutrition advice.

For his unique contributions, Wolke is the 2005 recipient of the American Chemical Society’s James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public. Established in 1955, this annual award is the highest honor the Society gives for public communication about chemistry. Named after two former managers of the American Chemistry Society’s News Service, the award aims to recognize, encourage and stimulate outstanding reporting that promotes the public’s understanding and knowledge of chemistry, chemical engineering and related fields.

Wolke will be honored at a luncheon at the National Press Club on Oct. 29 in Washington, D.C. He will receive the $3,000 Grady-Stack award, a gold medal and a certificate at the Society’s spring national meeting next March in San Diego, Calif.

Writing about food science has become Wolke’s full-time occupation since retiring from the University of Pittsburgh in 1990, where he worked as a professor and administrator for 30 years and now is Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at the university. In addition to his food column, which is distributed to more than 600 newspapers by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Syndicate, his work has reached the public through more than 200 radio interviews. He has also made television appearances in the U.S. and Canada.

Wolke ( is also known for a series of books that help explain chemistry and general science to the public: “What Einstein Didn’t Know – Scientific Answers to Everyday Questions,” “What Einstein Told His Barber – More Scientific Answers to Everyday Questions,” and “What Einstein Told His Cook – Kitchen Science Explained.” His next book in that series, “What Einstein Told His Cook 2, The Sequel – Further Adventures in Kitchen Science,” will be published in April. His books have been translated into more than fifteen languages and distributed worldwide.

Wolke is the recipient of numerous food-writing awards from the James Beard Foundation, the International Association of Culinary Professionals and the Association of Food Journalists. He has had several selections included in “Best Food Writing 2003.”

Wolke received his B.S. in chemistry from Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (now Polytechnic University) in 1949 and a Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry from Cornell University in 1953. He resides in Pittsburgh with his wife, Marlene Parrish, who writes about food for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

Past Grady-Stack winners include many of the top names in science reporting from the nation’s leading newspapers, magazines, wire services and broadcast outlets. Alton Blakeslee – Associated Press; Walter Sullivan – New York Times; science author Isaac Asimov; Don Herbert – host of the Mr. Wizard television series; Arthur Fisher – Popular Science; and Joe Palca – National Public Radio are a few of the 49 people who have received the prestigious award since its inception in 1957.

The American Chemical Society is a nonprofit organization, chartered by the U.S. Congress, with a multidisciplinary membership of more than 159,000 chemists and chemical engineers. It publishes numerous scientific journals and databases, convenes major research conferences and provides educational, science policy and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

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