Culture Decoder

Lessons in Chemistry

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The DECODER series — to which SEMIOVOX has invited our semiotician colleagues from around the world to contribute — explores fictional semiotician-esque action as depicted in books, movies, TV shows, etc.


In life, discoveries usually lead to more questions. The only constant variable is the unexpected. We can’t control it. It’s only when you look backwards that you see how it was all connected. Let’s begin, shall we?

Elizabeth Zott

Immersing myself in Bonnie Garmus’s 2022 novel Lessons in Chemistry at a friend’s suggestion, I was pleased to make the acquaintance of Elizabeth Zott, who journeys from scientist to ’60s TV chef, while attempting to break free from the gender stereotypes of the time. In Zott’s fervour for molecular biology and biochemistry, blending science and cooking, I detect a kindred spirit to semioticians. From her chemistry lens to decoding ingredients, Zott’s journey resonates with the spirit of discovery, inviting us to challenge norms and explore the unseen connections that enrich our understanding of the world.

Using her show as a pretext to decode the secrets of chemistry, Zott not only exposes the unexpected intricacies of cooking ingredients but highlights their interconnectivity… and also the intricate complexity of human meanings. She views cooking not merely as sustenance but as a chemical orchestration, a blending of elements into a harmonious composition. Her call for connectivity and complementarity among ingredients mirrors the semiotician’s practice. Like us, she embraces uncertainty.

In her vivid explanations of chemical bonds — ionic, covalent, hydrogen — Zott draws parallels between chemistry and the human experience of signs. Describing the ionic bond as opposites attract, Zott portrays the formation of robust connections between seemingly disparate elements; in semiotics, of course, interpreting signs involves understanding the diversity and connection of these signs within complex systems — something akin to the strong connections formed in an ionic bond. The covalent bond, meanwhile, symbolising strengths combined to create something better, offers itself as an analogy for the coexistence of various signs and symbols that contribute to a richer and more nuanced understanding of culture. And Zott’s analogy of the fragile hydrogen bond as love at first sight introduces a chemical reminder of the delicate nature of initial attractions, echoing the idea that appearances can be deceiving — much like some signs encountered in advertising.

Despite her science background, Zott insists that “Cooking is not an exact science.” She emphasises instead the uniqueness of each ingredient, for example the tomato: “The tomato I hold in my hand is different from the one you hold in yours. That’s why you must involve yourself with your ingredients. Experiment: taste, touch, smell, look, listen, test, assess.” This guidance extends beyond the culinary realm. Just as there’s an evolving description of chemical breakdowns and a complex mix of enzymatic interactions resulting from combining disparate ingredients in specific ways, so too does the semiotician’s analysis require active involvement, experimentation, and an embrace of uncertainty.

Just as molecules are connected in biochemistry, or disparate ingredients seamlessly blended in a recipe, signs operate together to form an interconnected cultural puzzle.

Although I wasn’t completely convinced by the book’s feminist slant, which sometimes diverted the story and tended to link women’s actions back to men, I found Zott’s angle as a cultural decoder powerful. And I particularly appreciated the signature line that Zott uses to close each episode of her cooking show:

Children, set the table. Your mother needs a moment to herself.


DECODER: Adelina Vaca (Mexico) on ARRIVAL | William Liu (China) on A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE | Tim Spencer (England) on VURT | Ramona Lyons (USA) on BABEL-17 | Rachel Lawes (England) on NICE WORK | Alfredo Troncoso (Mexico) on THE ODYSSEY | Gabriela Pedranti (Spain) on MUSIC BOX | Charles Leech (Canada) on PATTERN RECOGNITION | Lucia Laurent-Neva (England) on LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY | Whitney Dunlap-Fowler (USA) on THE GIVER | Colette Sensier (England / Portugal) on PRIESTDADDY | Jamin Pelkey (Canada) on THE WONDER | Maciej Biedziński (Poland) on KOSMOS | Josh Glenn (USA) on LE GARAGE HERMÉTIQUE | Antje Weißenborn (Germany) on BABYLON BERLIN | Ximena Tobi (Argentina) on SIX FEET UNDER | Mariane Cara (Brazil) on ROPE | Maria Papanthymou (Greece) on MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS | Chirag Mediratta (India) on BLEACH | Román Esqueda (Mexico) on TBD | Dimitar Trendafilov (Bulgaria) on THE MATRIX | Gemma Jones (Netherlands) on EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE | Ivan Islas (Mexico) on THE NAME OF THE ROSE | Paulina Goch-Kenawy (Poland) on TBD | Martha Arango (Sweden) on TBD | Becks Collins (England) on TBD.

Also see these international semio series: COVID CODES | SEMIO OBJECTS | MAKING SENSE WITH… | COLOR CODEX | DECODER

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