Thought for Food

Kitchen-science expert Harold McGee plays with food at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park

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In 1984 Harold McGee wrote a big book about kitchen science. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen was a masterpiece, hailed by food luminaries the world over as the Bible of culinary tomes.

The former astronomy and philosophy student turned Yale literature professor whose aim was to convey "the science of everyday life" produced a groundbreaking doorstopper stuffed with fascinating food facts you never knew you didn't know -- the simple process of browning food results in something called the Maillard reaction, which is what gives mouthwatering flavor to our steaks, coffee beans and rosemary boules; eating cheese at the end of a meal can prevent tooth decay; bananas share molecules with spices like cloves. Ever wonder how the heck egg whites transform themselves into the billowy white clouds that make possible a delicate chocolate soufflé? McGee tells you -- and while he's at it, he throws in the history of egg whites in cooking and the etymology of the word "meringue."

Even as the book was becoming a fixture in foodies' libraries, McGee was working away at a revised edition -- having realized, for instance, that he'd almost entirely forgotten to address the topic of fish. "There was a lot to bring up to date," says McGee, reached by phone in New York, where he traveled to attend the James Beard Foundation Awards ceremony -- and take home top honors for his brand-new-and-improved On Food and Cooking. "But broadly speaking, the thing that came as a wonderful revelation to me is what we've come to understand about flavor. Flavor is really, for most of us, what food is all about. We eat in order to survive, but we love it because it tastes good. Twenty years ago, not that much was known about the senses of taste and smell; not that much was known about the stuff in food that provided flavor, and now we know a great deal."

In the new On Food and Cooking, McGee delves deeper into health and nutrition, addressing the salubrious effects of wine and chocolate, the not-so-pleasant upshots of E. coli and trans fats, and the debatable benefits of food irradiation and genetic engineering. McGee conducts much of his research at home. "I have basically the standard American kitchen, with maybe a couple pieces of equipment that go beyond that: a really good scale and several different thermometers to keep accurate track of temperatures." A home cook and avid gardener with "very eclectic likes," McGee credits his culinary curiosity to his mother, who was born and raised in India. Growing up in the Midwest, McGee says, he "had the experience as a very little kid of the aromas of curry wafting down the street, welcoming me home from school."

After years of playing with his food as a scientist, McGee says, he never ceases to be amazed at the simple pleasures derived from the process, "the amazing transformation of food from a seed to a plant into its fruit and then into something wonderful on the table."

At 4 p.m. Monday, May 23, Harold McGee talks about "Playing with Food: Three Centuries of Science in the Kitchen" at the Mildred Bastian Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of St. Louis Community College-Forest Park (5600 Oakland Avenue). Admission is $5 (free for culinary students with valid ID). For more information call 314-846- 9932.

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