THE HOW AND WHY OF COOKING IS FOOD WRITER'S OBSESSION

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Palo Alto, Calif.-- Harold McGee places three sets of eyeglasses atop three different upturned copper bowls. The bowls are sitting on the old-fashioned stove in his old-fashioned kitchen.

Mr. McGee explains to a photographer that he still needs a frying pan with maybe a pork chop or an egg in it, some grease and -- of course -- his Chicago Cubs baseball cap. Mr. McGee is demonstrating how grease ends up on the inside of your glasses when you are frying something and why it is best to put on a baseball cap rather than a scarf or a toque when a skillet is asizzle.

"So," says the photographer as he peers at the weird still life atop Mr. McGee's stove burners. "This is a hobby, right? You don't do this for a living, right?"

But Mr. McGee does. Or, at least, it is part of what he does for a living.

Mr. McGee loves food. Aside from that, what he thinks most often when it comes to food is: "Why?" and "How?"

Mr. McGee's first foray into the field of food science came in 1984 when he published "On Food and Cooking." The 700-page book, an encyclopedic overview of what mankind knows about food, "fascinated" M. F. K. Fisher and was called a "minor masterpiece" by Time magazine. Preparing that book, which went through eight hardcover printings, kept Mr. McGee skulking around libraries researching the history and makeup of foodstuffs.

Then about three years ago, Mr. McGee began writing "The Curious Cook" (North Point Press, 1990, $19.95). The book, which has "why?" and "how?" as its central theme, caused Mr. McGee to split his time between being a Dr. Jekyll in the library and being a Mr. Hyde in the kitchen.

To research "The Curious Cook," Mr. McGee spent hundreds of hours in local libraries, many times at Stanford University, delving into subjects such as cancer and fat, the work of Brillat-Savarin and China's rich history with persimmons.

But he also conducted experiments to find out whether long-held beliefs -- for instance, whether searing meat at a high heat keeps it juicier than slow cooking -- are true. He conducted other experiments because he wanted to see how something that seemed like magic really worked. In doing so, he often crossed over the line of normal behavior.

One day, for example, he shaped aluminum foil on his face like mask and wore it while frying. For several weeks, while running experiments on marination, he had garbage bags full of meat and marinade stashed in his garage. Another week found him lowering pork chops in plastic berry baskets into vats of liquid, using a laboratory ring stand.

One day his wife, Sharon Long, came home to find bowls of guacamole on the kitchen counters. Even though she is a professor of biology at Stanford and familiar with the types of tableaux that experimentation can create, she was surprised to see light bulbs plunked into the mashed avocado mixtures.

Perhaps the most harmonious period of his experimentation occurred during his testing of ways to make fruit ices. Ms. Long and the couple's two young children were treated to endless cups of granita made from every fruit imaginable.

So Mr. McGee's a wild and crazy guy? On the contrary.

He's about to take his show on the road, about to do a book tour for "The Curious Cook." But the idea doesn't thrill him. He's not a showy fellow -- not as he puts it, "a parader" or a magician.

He's no Julia Child; he's friendly but reserved. Even in blue jeans, he has an air of class; he's no Yan Can Cook. He's a graduate of the California Institute of Technology and Yale but grew up in Chicago, where his mother was fond of making tuna casserole and Jell-O molds with fruit suspended in them.

He thinks hamburgers are "one of the pinnacles of civilization."

Bearded, bespectacled, built like a bean and with a voice that doesn't project, Mr. McGee would rather spend hours with a library's Dewey Decimal System or fiddle in his own kitchen than do a book tour.

He's always hoped that both "On Food and Cooking" and "The Curious Cook" would someday be on every cook's bookshelf next to the legendary "Joy of Cooking." (Which, by the way, he found perpetuates a few myths about cooking.)

He doesn't think that has happened, but his books are becoming recommended reading at culinary schools, and people in Northern California who know food refer to them often. Chefs call him often with questions.

"That's nice, but I really wrote my books for people at home," he says.

Mr. McGee, 39, who says he's only a passable cook, didn't start out to be a food scientist, investigative reporter or guru.

/# He says he intended to be an as

tronomer when he began studying at Cal Tech but, as happens to many in college, "when you see what a career actually entails, your view changes."

He took up his second love, literature, and went on to get his Ph.D. in that subject at Yale. At the same time Ms. Long was pursuing her degree. The convergence of his interests and how they complemented hers caught fire after a dinner party in which a colleague of Ms. Long asked why beans produced flatulence.

Ms. Long and Mr. McGee went to the library the next day to find out. He's been exploring such topics ever since out of his home office and kitchen.

"For someone with my background, the appeal of a lot of the topics I investigate is to know that there is something going on when food cooks. If you know, you are a better chef," Mr. McGee says.

This is not to take talent out of the equation.

"I think there are people who are clearly geniuses, who can do things with food. That's different. That's the magic of human touch. But food itself . . . plays by certain rules. That's what I'm trying to understand," he says.

"The Curious Cook" contains the results of experiments Mr. McGee conducted in his kitchen. It also contains a groundbreaking discovery of how to make mayonnaise and the like using the microwave and raw egg yolks to do away with the threat of salmonella poisoning.

After his book was submitted to its publisher, Mr. McGee took his microwave to Stanford University, where he injected an egg with billions of salmonella bacteria. He subjected them to the procedure he recommended to home cooks in his book and they came out with zero bacteria present.

The results of that study were published recently in a scientific magazine.

The book also contains a chapter exploding the old wives' tale that lettuce should be torn rather than sliced with a knife to prevent browning; a voyage into the fashioning of beurre blanc; a chapter on a new way to make fruit ices -- McGee's favorite -- that includes recipes; chapters on how fat affects the heart; the effect of aluminum pans on the human body; and a chapter explaining and singing the praises of osmazone, the essence of meat's flavor that shows up sometimes as brown stuff in the bottom of the pan after frying.

"Even from my perspective, it's a peculiar book. It's a strange mix of subjects, but it's what interests me," Mr. McGee says.

Mr. McGee has no immediate plans for another book on the intersection of food and chemistry, although he plans "to go on thinking about things like this," things that take people below life's skin.

"The science of everyday life interests me," he says.

He thinks the things he wonders about are common to many people. Although he became fascinated with persimmons once he began investigating them, the chapter wasn't even his idea.

"My Aunt Betsy called me to say she really liked them but had a whole yard full and didn't know anything about them."

"The Curious Cook"

Harold McGee's "The Curious Cook" doesn't skim the surface of the topics he has selected to investigate. Many contain complicated arithmetical formulas, tales of foodstuffs through the ages and the chemical reasons things happen as they do in the kitchen.

But here are a few fast facts Mr. McGee uncovered in his travels in the world of mayonnaise alchemy and persimmon puckery.

*Searing doesn't seal juices in meat.

*Chilling wine and beer in an ice bath works faster than putting them in a freezer.

*Oiled potatoes bake faster than unoiled ones.

*Rinsing fresh mushrooms doesn't make them soggy.

*Coating torn or cut lettuce leaves in oil will cause them to wilt and darken.

*Wearing a baseball cap keeps grease that flies up into the air from falling onto the insides of your glasses. It falls on the inside because your head is bent forward.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
68°