Introduction to Harold McGee by Hans Steketee

The late food historian Alan Davidson was once invited to appear on the tv-show of the American domestic goddess Martha Stewart. He talked about his groundbreaking book on the history and culture of food, called The Oxford Companion to Food, and he was then asked to prepare his favourite dish.

Davidson, being part English, part Scottish, chose kippers, the cold smoked herring that for two or three centuries has constituted a very British start of the day. Kippers weren’t available in the US, so he had brought his own. He folded open the kippers, put them on a plate, poured some hot water on them and after three minutes took them out.

‘Now what?’ Martha Stewart asked.
‘Nothing’, Davidson said. ‘This is it. It’s delicious with bread and strong tea.’

He was never asked to re-appear on her programme.

Now let me read you part of a column Heston Blumenthal wrote for The Guardian. Blumenthal is a British chef with a galaxy of Michelin stars to his name and he tells us about a drink that is hot if you drink from one side of the glass it’s served in and cold on the other side. So how does he do it?

‘There is a particular gelling agent (verdikkingsmiddel)’, Heston writes, ‘ which enables us to make what is known as a fluid gel. We use it to make an almond purée, for example. First we make an almond milk by infusing milk with slightly roasted crushed almonds (laten trekken), then we mix the almond milk with the gelling agent and allow it to set into a jelly.

‘Once it’s set, we blitz it to break it up into tiny little globules (bolletjes) that are so small the mixture looks like a purée or cream. The beauty of this is that it has no starch-based ingredients (geen zetmeel) to thicken it, so it is very clean in the mouth and so lets the almond flavour really shine through.

‘We apply the same technique to the hot and cold drink. If you use just the right amount of gelling agent, you end up with a liquid like a syrup that isn’t really a liquid at all but rather a jelly that’s been broken down into millions of little pieces. We warm some of it and leave the rest cold.

‘We put a divider down the middle of a glass and fill one side with the hot gel and the other with cold. Then lift up the divider and, hey presto, you have what looks like a glass filled with a single liquid. Only it isn’t a liquid, it’s two fluid gels that will keep separate long enough for you to feel the difference. We could make them two different colours, but I think the dish works best if both sides look the same.’

So, on the one hand we have a food writer who simply pours hot water on a herring and on the other we have a writing chef who has a chemical lab for a kitchen. They couldn’t be more different. Or could they?

Well, the man who links Davidson and Blumentahl is with us this evening. He is the American food writer Harold McGee. McGee not only became close friends with both men, but they have inspired each other’s work. But if Davidson was a brilliant food historian, and Blumenthal is a scientific wizzard in the kitchen, McGee combines both approaches – history and science – which have attracted more and more popular interest over the past years and routinely fill venues like this all over the world.

He is here because his book McGee on Food & Cooking has just been published in a Dutch translation, under the title Over eten en koken. The subtitle is An Encyclopedia Of Kitchen Science, History And Culture, which says it all, really.

His book is a completely revised edition of a book with the same title, that appeared more than twenty years ago, after McGee transmogrified himself from a literature professor into what he himself modestly calls a curious cook. The old book was great, but the new edition has been widely received as a masterpiece.

And I am sorry to say I haven’t read it. At least not completely, for which I hope Harold McGee will forgive me, since it totals nearly 900 pages.

It is an exhaustive work, covering everything from milk biology to the four basic food molecules. It tells you why fresh meat gets tender when you hang it for a couple of days and why sometimes eggs may stay soft when you boil them longer. He tells us about pickling in China and beet sugar in Germany and about the difference between Scottish whisky – with a ‘y’ – and Irish whiskey – with ‘ey’ – although he doesn’t explain why they are spelled differently.

He tells us that the French vice of force-feeding geese was already practiced by ancient Egyptians and why rye (rogge) can be compared to LSD. He explains why you can enjoy a meal of beans twice. And in the completely new chapter on fish – which was very small in the old book – he tells nearly everyting there is to tell about preserving herrings in salt or smoke. Although I couldn’t find an explanation what hot water precisely does to a kipper.

McGee’s science-based method – it’s full of amino acids, enzymes, proteins and peptides – makes this book compulsory reading for everyone – both amateurs and professionals – who want to know more, or arguably everything, about what happens when you prepare food. And why food tastes, smels, feels the way it does.

Yes, it’s study material, but it’s not a text book. It’s a book that you can also keep on your bedside table and read for fun, looking up something out of curiosity and than finding yourself an hour later having learned about all kinds of different topics, that you didn’t even know you were interested in. It is also a book that will make you go into the kitchen and try out Maillard reactions or different sweeteners for yourself, although I should add there’s not one proper recipe in it. This book simply wets the apetite.

Now, before I hand it over to you, Harold, I have to introduce another guest on the podium. His name is Schilo van Coevorden, and he is a chef, and a very special one at that. He has had a traditional education, but thanks to the world of science percolating into the world of gastronomy, Schilo’s cooking has been infused with the science McGee writes about. He has been a chef in many places, he has lived in London for many years, and now he is the chef at the College hotel in Amsterdam.

After Harold’s speech Schilo will talk briefly about the appliance of science in his cookery. Then we will open up the discussion to the floor. And finally Schilo and his team will let you taste some of his kitchen tricks.