BY MIKE MADISON / PHOTOGRAPHY BY BENJAMIN DELLA ROSA
Ask a few dozen chefs for a list of the 10 best books on food, and the results will be quite diverse. But there is one title that will be on every list: Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen.
And if you inspect the chefs' copies, you will find them bristling with yellow sticky notes, thumb-printed and gravy-stained, with the corners of pages bent down where desperate chefs tried to understand why their mousse wasn't setting up, or why their hard-boiled eggs smelled sulfurous.
The subtitle—science and lore—indicates the two sides of the book. What you learned about cooking from your grandmother is lore. "Always beat egg whites in a copper bowl—it makes them lighter," she tells you. McGee gives us the science behind it: The copper of the bowl bonds to sulfur atoms on the proteins of the egg, preventing tight cross bonds that make the foamed whites grainy and dense.
If the idea of a science-minded book about food makes you groan with anticipated boredom, allow yourself to be corrected. McGee's prose is lucid and engaging, and even the most science-phobic reader will find the science accessible. Moreover, the subject is inherently fascinating. Not everyone cooks but all of us eat, and you can open to any page and find yourself engrossed in etymology, history, culture, anthropology and the science of food.
What is the proper way to grind coffee, and why? What's special about sea salt? Why can you harvest a pear green to ripen on the windowsill, but citrus must ripen on the tree? Why did a recipe for cooking dry beans work great in Sacramento but fail in Davis? (Hint: hard water is the culprit.) These and twenty thousand other intriguing questions are answered here.
It is typical of modern cookery books that the oversized ego of the chef/author dominates every page. But McGee is modest and self-effacing. Just enough of his personality shows through to reveal his enthusiasm for food and his wry sense of humor. You cannot help but imagine him to be a witty and entertaining dinner companion.
Here's a recommendation: Wherever you buy books, order 10 copies of On Food and Cooking, second edition (2004). One is for yourself. The other nine are for graduations, birthdays, weddings, holidays and any other occasion when gift giving is called for. This will make your life easier, and the recipients will be forever grateful. And when those copies are gone, order 10 more.