ON FOOD AND COOKING: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee
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ON FOOD AND COOKING: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen

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A thoughtful popular treatment of the scientific aspects of food--largely successful in filling one of the crying needs of the field. McGee, who seems to be one of those happy polymaths with a foot in the humanistic as well as the scientific camp (Cal Tech B.S., Yale Ph.D. in English), heroically manages to impose some order on wildly disparate materials--including generous doses of etymology and intellectual history, along with the expectable food chemistry, botany, and microbiology. Most of the book is taken up with the nature and behavior of major foods, grouped in nine substantial chapters (starting with dairy products and winding up with wine and other alcoholic beverages) rather lamely followed by a tenth on food additives. The final few chapters treat the fundamentals of nutrition, digestion, and the sensory enjoyment of food, and review some relevant general outlines of chemistry and physics. Along the way, there are clear explanations of the effect of heat on different proteins, the cellular structures of animal and plant tissues, and the behavior of starches and sugars under varied conditions. There are also dozens of marvelous quotations from old recipes and food authorities (Apicius to Hannah Glasse) and lengthy, pleasurable excursions into chapters of food history (like the rise of the breakfast-cereal industry, or the saga of such past health-and-nutrition fads as the Hay diet). This is an ideal book for extracting odd facts (""Melons at their most active""--i.e., on the vine--""put on better than S cubic inches a day""). As a reference tool, it does not claim to be exhaustive. There are astonishing amounts of detail on some subjects (the colloidal intricacies of sauce bÉarnaise), none at all on others (say, the behavior of strudel dough). The botanically minded may not find much they didn't know already in the treatment of individual food plants. But what McGee does take up he pursues with firm clarity and patience, so that even neophytes can not only understand the behavior of starch molecules in sauces, but recognize further extensions of the same principles in the treatment of batters. Only the truncated chapter on additives disappoints: McGee's temperate insistence on their general benefits is reasonable enough, but the subject demands a lengthy, detailed examination or none at all. Nonetheless: really splendid.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1984
ISBN: 0684800012
Publisher: Scribners