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On Food and Cooking

The Science And Lore of the Kitchen

by Harold McGee,

published by Scribner


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On Food and Cooking is a book for people, not for laboratory scientists, and it belongs on the shelf of anyone who likes food. We must confess, however, that we opened the book warily. Forewarned, we knew it contained elements of botany, chemistry, thermodynamics, physics. Could this be a book to enjoy?

Once we started reading, hours passed and we were unable to put the book down. With the exception of actually sitting to eat, author Harold McGee has given us the most food pleasure we've had in years. Even sitting to eat will now be a more sensuous delight since our cooking improved as we learned of the processes foods undergo during preparation. Enjoyment reminded us that we have all changed as cooks. We've mastered techniques and explored new cuisines. Now we demand a greater understanding of food.

McGee has spent the past ten years updating the popular 1984 edition of Food & Cooking. Released originally in a limited printing, it has remained on the shelves of bookstores, valued by superstar chefs and curious cooks as THE book for reference. While basic scientific fact hasn't changed, McGee has moved with the rest of us into new food territories, new discoveries in scientific innovation.

With the wry humor that sparks his prose, McGee asks in the first sentence of the first chapter (milk and dairy products), "What better subject for the first chapter than the food with which we all begin our lives?" He then continues to discuss milk and its evolution, its nutrients, allergies, biology. Included are unfermented dairy produces and all forms of cheeses. The wit inherent in his prose carries the reader through each topic while scientific data is presented in sidebars of varying lengths, or with clear illustrations.

In fifteen chapters, each devoted to a different food category, McGee has left no food unturned. Bakers will understand why flour behaves the way it does; meat lovers will discover what makes a tender stew, or why a turkey is so difficult to cook. Every form of vegetable, fruit, nut or seed is discussed. Even the history of beer is here, along with an understanding of its ingredients, many of which are illustrated.

All is not science in this book. McGee is a Renaissance man when it comes to food, and the book is packed with historical facts, literary anecdotes, and food legends passed down through the ages.

McGee trained in science, but also studied English literature at Yale University, where he wrote a thesis titled "Keats and the Progress of Taste." This happy marriage of interests has produced a book that belongs in every cook's library.


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