Every genre of literature has works that define that particular style of writing, be it sci-fi, horror, history, law or juvenile fiction. Everybody knows, in some form or another, the works of Stephen King, David McCullough, Nora Roberts and Judy Blume their names are synonymous with the genus of writing in which they scribe. There are many known authors, either known for their style or the content that they so poignantly convey. Some use humor. Others use fact. Still more use mystery or delve into the past. They paint a picture that transports you somewhere else, a place where the author wants you to go and a destination so glorious you opt not to return. There is no better comment from an 8 year-old, eyes barely visible over the dog-eared pages of thick hardback, than "wow, I really got lost in that book!"
The same is true, in fact, of cookbooks, books on food, books on eating and the like. There are a great number of cookbooks that are treasured as 'classics.' Tomes that are as rich in content as they are in panache tend to hold our interest as well as a spot in the 'close at hand' space on the bookshelf. Unless the material is captivating, expertly written and, sadly enough, entertaining, there is little that is going to interrupt watching FoodTV for us grown-up types, let alone the latest episode of Survivor or Desperate Housewives. Larousse's Gastronomique, Ranhoffer's Epicurean, Rombauer/Becker's The Joy of Cooking are but a few of the namesake classics of old (and somewhat revised.) Lately, Kelleher's French Laundry, Birenbaum's The Cake Bible and, even more recently, Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice have all found homes, at least in my home, in the "do not give away (meaning: do not lend)" section of my cookbook collection. A classic book on food is a perennial favorite loaded with the 'goods' for which you are looking. It does not disappoint, rather it enriches, encourages and enlightens your epicurean wherewithal. A compendium of classic food literature would be far from complete without including Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking.
Harold McGee has made it even more to difficult to say, "I got it!" when questioned about a particular facet on food science. Sure, Alton Brown is great in teaching us the virtues of using science in the kitchen. And he does it with those great camera angles, catchy sound effects and really good-looking food. I'm a big fan! And Robert Wolke's What Einstein Told his Cook (and later second volume) does great justice to explain, in a kitschy style, what is happening on a molecular level to the lumpy gravy. And do not go near the kitchen-lab without paying homage to Shirley Corriher's Cookwise. She is the real deal and she makes me understand! But, McGee is the man. Legend! Hero! And with the a completely revised edition of 1984's On Food and Cooking there is even more going on in that pot of rice pilaf then you ever thought possible. Perhaps the revised edition should have been subtitled Everything you wanted to know about cooking science but had no idea the information existed.
I caution you that On Food and Cooking is not a science text, nor does it read that way. On Food and Cooking is much more than that. McGee's original digest was (and still is, but newly revised) the benchmark for the really good cook's working knowledge of kitchen science. Or should be, anyhow. The two editions then diverge. They are not the same works. Are the topics similar? Yesâ€¦ mostly. But there the similarities end. If you have refrained from trawling the new edition because you fear 'surface' changes for the sake of releasing an anniversary edition your are mistaken. The more you know about how your food interacts with the elements of which it is subject, the better equipped cook you will be. You will not find lengthy explanations of every facet of the topics mentioned in the 15 chapters. Nor will you put the book down with the chemical make-up of each ingredient covered in the new edition. Well, you might get most of the chemical make-up. What you will uncover is why you might (might not) rinse rice, why root flours do not work well in batters and why properly made mayonnaise does not separate. Notice "why" rather than just "that." This is higher-level learning inquiry into why food does what it does. If you merely want to know that you use cake flour to bake a cake then pick up one of the many books or magazines on the topic. However, if you need a detailed explanation of protein contents of common wheat flours, check page 530 in On Food and Cooking.
The entertainment factor in the new edition of On Food and Cooking should not be dismissed. Not that learning should not be entertaining McGee ensures that his new confabulation is colorfully engaging by his incorporation of a plethora of vignettes on related topics. Nearly every page holds Jeopardy-like wit like the Indo-European origins of "leavening" or the colon-cleansing properties of Escolar or the Arabic alchemy of alcohol.
Within the new edition's 884 pages, there is much on protein structures, acids, lipids, origins and the 'nature of' certain foods. There are no recipes, per se, nor does he claim there to be. There are, however, pontifications on dairy, eggs, meat, edible plants, fruits and vegetables, to name a few. The science McGee uses to explain just exactly why our kitchen is as much a laboratory as it is food preparation center is not written for the uninspired cook. Rather, McGee does not water down the Latin-roots, pH levels or evolutionary tract of our food follows. The new incarnation of On Food and Cooking should be as much of a staple as anything in the pantry. The only difference is that Harold McGee brings the enlightened truth to the kitchen satisfying our appetite for "why" and a bowl of delicate raviolis just plain satisfies. Together, they are divine.
Join the ChefTalk.com Open Forum with Harold McGee on December 10th at: http://www.cheftalk.com/forums.