Writing yesterday about Michael Pollan’s Cooked got me thinking about other great books about food and its preparation. In my mind, Harold McGee’s masterful On Food and Cooking is the best writing I have found on food, covering chemistry, preparation, taste, individual fruits, vegetables, fish, cheese, meats, and pretty much anything else you might eat—algae anyone?
Whether you want to know about sugar substitutes and their qualities (p. 660-661), how baking pans affect the qualities of the item being baked (p. 563), what drinkers mean when they talk about the “tears” in strong wines or spirits (p. 717), or how you get from tea leaves to black, Oolong, or green tea (both Chinese and Japanese) (p. 438) there is something here for you.
Along the way, McGee includes recipes, food lore, quotations, and more, but the heart of the book is the comprehensive exploration of how cooking, fermenting, and other forms of processing affect the taste, texture, and edibility of food stuffs. An obvious appeal here is for readers who are cooks themselves and are perhaps developing new recipes. McGee is a great source for figuring out how to best combine and prepare ingredients. The book also is a useful compendium of cultural histories of food and ingredients. For instance, the chapter “Cereal Doughs and Batters” begins with a section on the evolution of bread from prehistoric to modern times (concluding with a section on “The decline and revival of traditional breads.”
On Food and Cooking is best read by dipping into an chapter that looks interesting, but be forewarned, McGee is an addictive writer, and, like a bag of potato chips, you will find yourself wanting to read just one more section. For readers who have forgotten their chemistry, there is a helpful “Chemistry Primer” at the end of the book that covers atoms, molecules, chemical bonds, energy, and the phases of matter. Any food lover will find a banquet of topics here to feast on.
Check the WRL catalog for On Food and Cooking.