Whether you’re someone who is in awe of the mastery of great chefs like Heston Blumenthal, enjoys the work of The Modernist Cuisine, or are just a fan of modern cutting-edge cooking, you owe a debt of gratitude to one Harold McGee.
That’s because McGee helped change the world of food with the publication his seminal book, On Food And Cooking: The Science And Lore Of The Kitchen, in 1984. The book would go on to influence a generation of young chefs over the coming decades, including the likes of Blumenthal and Alton Brown, the latter of which described McGee’s book as “the Rosetta stone of the culinary world.”
I recently had a chance to sit down with McGee (a Zoom call is “sitting down”, right?) to talk to him about that original book and his new one, NOSE DIVE: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells.
“I just got kind of sucked into figuring out as much as I could about the molecules that escaped the things of the world, and fly into our noses and give information about what they are and what their histories are,” McGee told me.
McGee originally planned to write a book on flavor, but changed course after having something close to a religious experience eating a meal of grouse in an English restaurant. That change of course would ultimately take him on a ten year journey exploring the world’s smells.
“I ordered grouse at this traditional English restaurant and the first bite was just so unlike what I was expecting that it knocked me for a loop,” said McGee. “I actually couldn’t speak for 30 seconds. The people I was eating with looked at me and thought maybe I was having a stroke or something. It was it was just the most powerful flavor experience I’ve ever had in my life.”
From there, McGee went on to learn more about grouse and how it makes it to the plate. He realized that unlike so many of the processed foods we eat today, an animal like grouse is presented to the person in a much more primitive form: It’s caught wild, generally has parasites, and is cooked very rare.
The end result is an overwhelming flavor explosion that, if you’re someone like Harold McGee, leaves you speechless.
“A lot of that flavor is all still right there and right in front of you,” said McGee. “Learning all that made me realize there’s probably a lot like that to learn about many things that we encounter in everyday life, not just foods. And that’s the beginning of the push that ended up putting me into the world of smells.”
A book on smells makes lots of sense if you think about it, since smells make up such a critical part of how we taste food and experience the world we live in. In fact, the way McGee explains it, our sense of smell is our most direct way of actually taking in the world around us.
“I like to remind people that vision and hearing, which are the senses that we usually pay the most attention to, are very indirect. We’re seeing light waves reflected off of things or being emitted by things.”
“The amazing thing about smell is that it gives us detailed information about what it is that that thing is. And smell is this bridge between the outer world and our inner experience of food because we inhale and we exhale.”
In fact, according to McGee, the reason we often taste flavors or smell smells that remind us of other things – what he describes as flavor “echoes” – is that these things often share some of the same molecules.
“Why they echo each other is that they’re both emitting exactly the same fundamental particles of the world. And we’re noticing that. And even though it maybe doesn’t make total sense that a wine would smell like a saddle, our brains are picking up on that fact, and registering it.”
Just as he once broke down and analyzed the act of cooking at the molecular level and unleashed a new wave of culinary creativity, I expect McGee’s new field guide to the world of smells might just help us all better appreciate the world are breathing in and out everyday.
You can find McGee’s book on Amazon and other booksellers, but before you read it, you can watch my entire interview with him below, or listen to it on the latest episode of the Food Tech Show podcast on Apple Podcasts or in your favorite podcast app.