Growing up in Chicago in the 1950s and 60s, Harold McGee never dreamed of a career in the food world. Instead, he had his sights set on the stars, deciding to major in astronomy at the California Institute of Technology. But McGee, born October 3, 1951, also discovered a deep appreciation for literature and poetry, and almost gave up on his astronomy degree. After an English professor suggested he merge his dual passions and stay in the program, McGee did just that, going on to study
literature at the Ph.D. level at Yale under the famous literary scholar Harold Bloom.
It was after finishing his doctorate that he stumbled upon the idea that would eventually make him the chefs’ darling that he is today. On weekends, McGee would gather for a potluck with his friends, a mix of science and literary academics. Often, the discussion would turn to food, and their collective curiosity at some of its mysteries. Why do we put salt on spilt wine? Why do beans cause flatulence and what can we do about it? It was this last question that sent McGee digging through Yale’s biology library, where he solved the mystery behind his friend’s post-bean-dinner woes.
This foray into food science had such an impact on McGee that he transformed his curiosity into a book proposal, a project that would result in one of the most influential food science references for chefs of all time: On Food And Cooking: The Science And Lore Of The Kitchen . In his groundbreaking book, a 680-page tome that’s as enjoyable to read as it is informative, McGee maps out the history, chemistry, and processes behind the foods and ingredients that have shaped human civilization and cuisine for millennia. The book helped give rise to the molecular gastronomy movement, though McGee himself rejects the term as a sort of shorthand for using industrial tricks in the kitchen that will eventually lose their novelty.
Today, Harold McGee is one of the most important voices in food science, having transformed his twin passions of literature and science into a successful writing career, elucidating the world’s food mysteries for chefs and non-chefs alike. McGee traded in the poetry of Keats for the poetry of food, made up not of sound and meter but of chemistry. And he tells us epic stories, about how humans first started using and processing milk, about how the Incas invented freeze drying, and how flavor molecules change with different cooking processes. Ultimately, he was able to follow his passions while also, in a way, following in the footsteps of his father, who was a chemical and electrical engineer.
That sense of curiosity, exploration, and myth-busting that first emerged in his weekend potlucks has now become McGee’s professional calling card. Why do different foods taste the way they do? What molecules are responsible for different flavor profiles, and why do we like certain combinations of flavors more than others? What does salt do to food? Why are some plants spicy? Is MSG really bad? These are just a few of the questions McGee helps us answer.
But his research goes so much deeper. After learning that sugar isn’t actually stable at room temperature but actually undergoes a very slow process of caramelization even in the absence of heat, he wondered what would happen if he baked sugar crystals at low heat for multiple days. So he conducted an experiment. The result? Perfectly caramelized crystals of sugar without any melting—something that no chef had ever discovered before. This is the way his mind works: somewhere in between a chef and a mad scientist.
In addition to On Food and Cooking (1984), which was completely updated in revised in 2004, Harold McGee has written two other books: The Curious Cook: More Kitchen Science and Lore , a shorter, more personal work, and Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes , a practical food-science kitchen handbook for both chefs and home cooks. He’s also written extensively for various publications, including The New York Times , The World Book Encyclopedia , The Art of Eating , Food & Win e, Fine Cooking , and Physics Today , and published original research in the
scientific journal Nature .