Gut Instinct: The Science of Eat

During my sexless youth, I was comrades with a kid named Schmidtler. He was well-muscled teen, a wrestler with acne who drove a red Ford Escort decorated with Phish stickers. His dictator handle dated to second-grade art class, when he pencil-sketched Aunt Jemima and her sweet syrup. “You’re no longer Schmidt,” a twee youth taunted, referencing the nascent artist’s last name, “you’re Schmidtler.” Schmidtler’s nickname stuck like winged insects to tacky tape.

To combat his nasty sobriquet, Schmidtler became angelically kind. Especially to me, one of my Ohio high school’s token Hebes. “Need a ride to school?” he’d ask. Or: “Hey, want to come to my family’s Hilton Head timeshare?” But his greatest gift was proffered during sophomore-year chemistry class: “Want to be my lab partner?”

I accepted the proposal as greedily as a mongrel snatching a fatty scrap. I’m abysmal at science. Formulas and equations are more mind-boggling than that Mini-Me sex tape. Compared to me, Schmidtler was a beaker-boiling Louis Pasteur. His Bunsen burner brilliance saved me from an F; perhaps my dreidel-spinning ways would help Schmidtler lose his -ler?

Fifteen years later, my friends recall Schmidtler by his mistaken moniker, and I still find science confounding. How do air conditioners and deodorant function? Who cares! Just keep me cool and stink-free. But lately, I’ve paid lip (and stomach) service to science. At Tailor, Eben Freeman’s transforming white Russians into booze-bathed Rice Krispies, while Sam Mason’s painting pork belly with miso butterscotch. The West Village’s Smith’s cloaks steamed eggs with gorgonzola-flavored froth, and Daniel’s mixologists are converting Cointreau into gelatinous caviar. I applaud the experimental urge, but if I want foodstuffs crammed with chemicals and congealers I’d rather dine at Mickey D’s.

“But we’re having my birthday dinner at WD-50!” my friend Julie commands. WD-50 (50 Clinton St. betw. Stanton & Rivington Sts., 212-477-2900) is Wylie Dufresne’s long-running innovator. It specializes in scientific novelties like popcorn soup and eggs Benedict consisting of deep-fried mayo sided with an egg-yolk cylinder and a Canadian bacon wafer.

“No.”

“Yes,” she counters, “and we’re going to try everything.”

“Everything?” I reply, waving bye-bye to my hard-pennies. If it were up to me, we’d get our molecular kicks at Sunlight

Bakery (160 East Broadway at Rutgers St., 212-608-8899). Orange-hatted women ladle opaque batter, raw pork, cilantro and green onions into a metal drawer. It’s stuffed into a steamer and, through alchemic magic, morphs into squiggly noodles. For $1.50.

“Yes, everything.”

“Desserts too?”

“Multiple,” she says.

At that, I escort myself to my duty-bound birthday meal on the Lower East Side’s Clinton Street. WD-50 is a spare, muted eatery filled with high-backed booths and hip music kept murmur-quiet to facilitate conversation and mask my gasps upon spotting prices.

“Twenty-nine dollars for Wagyu beef with coffee gnocchi!” I sigh. For $10, I could dunk a broiled Tad’s steak into a sloshing java mug.

“Oh, don’t be a cheapskate,” Julie says, as our six-member party orders an appetizer and entrée apiece.

“Looks like I’m selling my body to science again,” I say—my going rate is $50 an MRI, and $400 buys a two-day sleep-deprivation experiment—before diving into fried quail with a breakfast-esque banana tartar ($16) and corned duck with rye crisp ($14), like a deconstructed deli sandwich.

“I could score a mound of corned beef at Zabar’s for what this costs,” I want to complain, but why ruin this special day? Instead, I quell my kvetching with tender scallops in a spiced-bread consommé ($29)—think Christmas by the sea—and pink lamb with pretzel consommé ($30), a mixture of salty snack and protein that sits queasily in my stomach. I drop my fork and burp, like the star of an ’80s Alka-Seltzer commercial.

“No stopping,” Julie says, noticing my reluctance to overload my gullet. “It’s dessert time.”

I’ve never savored sweets—a point of consternation to an ex-girlfriend, who seemingly subsisted on chocolate, Diet Coke and bilious disdain for me—but WD-50’s desserts ($14 each) plant sugar on a pedestal.

Lemongrass-infused cornbread pudding, cherry-covered chocolates and luscious pistachio ice cream vanish in a snap. Shortly, we’re gifted a bill that’s eerily similar to my parents’ ranch-home mortgage.

“Credit card,” I sigh. I toss my scratched MasterCard onto the table and burp lustily, as my rumbling gut makes me painfully aware that I’ll pay for this meal in more ways than one.