Harold McGee
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Harold McGee

David Arnold / September 2005

Food Arts presents the September 2005 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Harold McGee, for pioneering the application of scientific principles in the kitchen. His 1984 book, On Food and Cooking, with its carefully reasoned explanations and liberal doses of culinary history, inspired a coterie of influential chefs to cook better and with more understanding.

McGee went to Caltech to study astronomy, but after a change of heart he graduated with a B.S. in literature. After earning his Ph.D. in literature from Yale, he knew he wanted to write about science but didn't know from what angle. A friend's dinner party question about the gastro-intestinal effects of beans led him to the food science section of the library, and food science has occupied him ever since. The eminent Charles Scribner Jr. heard that someone was writing a book on kitchen science, and he sought out McGee. At lunch, Scribner burned his mouth on a murderously hot bowl of French onion soup. "I always do that. Why do I always do that?" he exclaimed. To which McGee responded, "Well, you see, evaporative cooling…" His book idea was sold, though he'd not yet finished the first chapter.

A book on the science of cooking with the scope he had in mind had never been attempted. His editors from the handicrafts department didn't understand the huge book and cut the life out of it. When a distraught McGee offered to buy the book back and return his advances rather than see his work mangled, Scribner intervened and saved the project. Unfortunately, no one knew how to market On Food and Cooking, and for the most part, chefs weren't interested. The late Louis Szathmary even said, "Cooking is an art. You have to know what you're doing, and no science book can teach you that."

"However," McGee says, "the people who appreciated the book were the prominent chefs of the next generation." Among these were Raymond Blanc, who understood the liberating effects of theoretical knowledge; Thomas Keller, whose relentless pursuit of excellence drives him to learn the science behind his cooking; and Heston Blumenthal, who relies on borrowed knowledge and a keen imagination to make up for a lack of classical training (see page 60).

McGee spent 10 years revising and updating On Food and Cooking, rereleasing it in 2004 to much greater acclaim than its original reception. "We printed more in the first four months than we did in the first four years of the original." The new edition is far more in-depth because today's chefs want more information than those of two decades ago—partly attributable to McGee. While the revised book has several new chapters and covers many more subjects, it's only a couple of hundred pages longer. McGee says, "That's why it took 10 years. We kept it to one volume but a lot was cut, including many historical anecdotes. My initial redraft of the dairy chapter alone ran several hundred pages."

A now happy McGee is gratified by the food world trajectory in the last 20 years. Asked if he was anticipating the rise of food culture or helping cause it, McGee replies, "Oh, I rode the wave… Well," he reconsiders, "maybe I helped start a wavelet."