This is my last column of the waning millennium, and inasmuch as I won't have the opportunity again for a thousand years, I should perform my journalistic duty by making sagacious predictions about what the future may hold.
Unfortunately, I can't even predict what I will have for dinner tonight. I must therefore confess that I haven't a clue about the future beyond the certainty, as Abraham Lincoln recognized, that as long as there are people, some of them will be trying to fool the others.
But because I have personally experienced the better part of a century, a fact that I attribute largely to a daily martini and strict adherence to my mother's admonition never to run with a stick in my hand, I do feel qualified to look, not forward for a thousand years, but backward for a hundred.
In this I am not alone. Virtually every magazine published in the past few months has contained the editors' pontifical compilation of the hundred most important something-or-others of the 20th century. But in the realm of kitchen technology, I maintain that there is only one outstanding development (not counting the Ginsu knife, of course) that above all others has revolutionized our lives. I'll let you guess for two paragraphs.
Consider our history as a species. We first learned to control fire for warmth and safety during the Old Stone Age, some 1.4 million years ago. Then we discovered that many foods were tastier and easier to chew after being held over a fire. And for more than a thousand millennia thereafter, right up until the beginning of the 20th century, we continued to build fires whenever we wanted to cook. Eventually, we learned to bring the fires indoors on kitchen hearths and to confine them in enclosures called ovens. But still, every cook had to obtain fuel and set fire to it in order to roast a pig or even to boil water.
But what if we could build a single, huge fire in a remote location and somehow transmit its energy instantly to thousands of kitchens in which thousands of cooks could use it simultaneously to roast, toast, boil, broil and bake? Is such a thing really possible?
Yes, through the 20th-century miracle of electricity.
It was only a hundred years ago that we discovered how to burn large quantities of coal or oil in a central plant, use the fire's heat to boil water and make steam, use that steam to generate electricity, and then send the electrical energy flying through copper wires for hundreds of miles.
We first used this energy to replace gas flames for lighting our streets and parlors. Then in 1909, electricity moved into the kitchen when the General Electric Co. marketed its first electric toasters. Electric ranges, ovens and refrigerators followed. Today, we can hardly turn out a meal without our electric mixers, beaters, broilers, blenders, food processors, coffeemakers, rice cookers, bread machines, deep fryers, skillets, woks, grills, slow cookers, steamers, waffle irons, slicers and knives. (I once invented an electric fork to go with the electric knife, but it never caught on.)
So if you believe the direst of Y2K predictions, we should all starve to death shortly after the world's electric power shuts down at midnight the day after tomorrow.
But don't worry. When the aliens arrive it will be in their interest to fatten us up. At first.
In a couple of recent columns I addressed the problems of how to remove and dispose of used cooking fat with some degree of environmental responsibility.
Several readers suggested a simple trick for removing grease from a soup or stew: Place a paper towel on the surface, whereupon it will absorb the layer of fat. I pass this method along, but I've never had much luck with it.
For larger quantities of fat, such as used deep-frying oil, Ken Medaris, a hydrogeologist with the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection, writes to advise that unless your house is on a septic system, you can mix the oil with a liberal amount of dishwashing liquid (which has a prodigious appetite for grease) and feed it to the garbage disposer to be scattered down the drain and ultimately dealt with by the local waste water treatment plant. (If you destroy your plumbing or your local treatment plant, call Ken Medaris, not me.)
Even better, he suggests, would be to turn an environmental liability into a conservation asset. After filtering the oil through four layers of cheesecloth, add it to the tank of your diesel-powered Mercedes, Volvo, Rabbit or pickup truck. "The oil is not terribly different from the original olive oil Rudolph Diesel used to run his invention," Medaris writes, "and in [small] quantities ... should cause no problems to the engine."
But discontinue feeding fat to your vehicle when it gets too big for the garage.
Robert L. Wolke is professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of "What Einstein Didn't Know--Scientific Answers to Everyday Questions." Send your kitchen questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.