Omelette Surprise

Under exactly what circumstances would an American-born British loyalist who fled North America and subsequently relocated to Bavaria introduce a dessert to Thomas Jefferson? It’s a darn good question. As far as I know, Rumford never returned to America after he left in 1776. Jefferson, on the other hand, traveled extensively in Europe in the 1780’s. Interested as Jefferson was in the sciences, it’s certainly possible he encountered Rumford there. However by Rumford’s own account, he didn’t invent his “omelette surprise” until about fifteen years later. So Rumford said:

Omelette surprise was the by-product of investigations in 1804 into the resistance of stiffly beaten egg whites to the induction of heat.

Not being an expert on the travels of either Rumford or Jefferson, I can’t say for certain that they never met. But based on what I can uncover via my own casual, non-rigorous research, I can’t find any evidence that they ever did. Still it’s well within the realm of possibility that Jefferson heard about “omelette surprise” from other sources. Rumford was quite a celebrity in scientific circles at the time.

In fact the science of heat was Rumford’s primary interest. He did extensive work on heat conduction and friction, and was especially interested in the insulating properties on various materials. It was during that series of experiments that he evidently discovered that ice and by extension ice cream could be kept from melting — even in a hot oven — by the application of an insulating layer of egg foam.

You’ve got to admit it’s a pretty neat trick. I remember being amazed by it when I first encountered baked Alaska in a grand hotel dining room when I was about 10. I can only imagine what a diner at Thomas Jefferson’s house in 1810 would have thought: Thomas, all this science stuff of yours really is quite amazing.

2 thoughts on “Omelette Surprise”

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