Flour, sugar, butter, science
Ask someone what a scientist looks like, and they'll likely describe a stern, sun-deprived stickler for numbers in a lab coat, choosing pipettes over parties and generally eschewing fun. Though the stereotype sometimes fits, the truth is that scientists are interesting, complex humans of all ages, races and gender identities with hobbies, passions, and gasp! even personalities.
Enter exhibits A and B: Dr. Chris Taylor and Dr. Paul Arguin, two scientists that have been kickin' ass and takin' names not just during their day jobs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but on the amateur baking circuit for the past six years as well.
At the CDC, Taylor works in the Alzheimer's Disease and Healthy Aging program, crunching numbers and conducting statistical analyses related to cognitive decline and dementia. Arguin is a malaria specialist who spends his days tracking cases in the U.S., developing guidelines to protect international travelers, and assisting doctors, nurses and pharmacists in malaria diagnosis and treatment.
"Working in public health at the federal level isn't always as glamorous as people think," says Arguin. "They think of the big Ebola outbreaks and that sort of thing. But on a day-to-day basis, it's a lot of office work, a lot of going through numbers, talking to people on the telephone, things like that."
Both scientists started baking for fun in their spare time to unwind from the daily grind. "I started doing it when I lived alone and I was in graduate school," says Taylor. "I was interested in baking and reading cookbooks and I had a little bit more money, a little more time and a lot of work to avoid!"
The pair were introduced through mutual friends back in 2009. Living 700 miles apart at the time (Taylor at grad school in Pittsburgh, Arguin here in Atlanta working for the CDC), they spent their first date over the telephone baking a complicated confection from Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible. Before they knew it, their bond over baking blossomed, and they fell in love. They've since celebrated their third wedding anniversary, and picked up a plethora of victories at local (and national) baking championships along the way.
Taylor and Arguin started their competitive baking journey on a whim, entering into the Lumpkin County Literacy Coalition's now defunct annual pie baking and pie tasting contest in Dahlonega. "The whole romantic nature of it seemed kind of fun a small-town pie contest," says Arguin. "So we thought about what we wanted to make and drove up there, making a weekend out of it. But the exciting part was Chris won it! That's where we got the bug."
Most recently, Taylor took home Best In Show in the amateur division at the National Pie Championships in Orlando this past June. Arguin won his first blue ribbon at the same competition. "My blueberry pie was the best amateur blueberry pie in the nation," he says. "I was very pleased with that."
The couple's enthusiasm is infectious, and their personalities come through loud and clear in their decorative cookies. Taylor's Instagram account, @floursugarbutter, boasts their latest colorful creations muscular mermen, adorable likenesses of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and decorative derri̬res paired with little tank tops reading, "Sun's out, buns out."
When asked if they think about baking at work, Taylor says, "All the time." The two agree that their knowledge of science gives them a bit of an advantage in the baking world. "If you understand the science of what you're trying to do, then you're free to improvise and have fun with it," says Arguin. "I definitely think about science while baking. If I'm working on a new fruit pie recipe, and I'm working with something I'm unfamiliar with ... I'll do test runs. If I want to swap rhubarb out with a citrus fruit, I might test the pH of the fruit just to make sure."
For scientists, Taylor says there's often little time or space for workplace celebrations. "I don't know if it's a drive thing or if it's just, you know, a humbleness that scientists don't want to revel in their successes." But when it comes to baking, Taylor and Arguin proudly display their ribbons and awards at home in what they call "the vault," where they also store most of their baking equipment.
"At the very first contest we won up in Lumpkin County, we walked right in front of the courthouse and got a picture of Chris with his ribbon," says Arguin. "We thought, what are we going to do with it? Well, we've got to put this up! And we've got a whole wall-full now."
In the coming months, the pair will be preparing for the big Georgia State Fair, which takes place the first week of October, as well as getting ready for next spring's National Pie Championships. They're also working on opening a commercial baking space in their home, to the delight of friends and acquaintances.
"People always ask us, will you bake me a cake?" says Arguin. "I think people around the city tend to do those things on the sly, but it's not legal, so we would like to do that properly, so we could take orders and sell our wares appropriately in a safe kitchen."
Spoken like a true scientist.