Review: On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee

This was first posted in March of 2004.

As I’ve hinted upon occasion, our favorite TV show at the moment is Good Eats, which airs on the Food Network. It’s not so much that we’re foodies (we’re not) as that Alton Brown is both funny and informative. He doesn’t just show you how to cook something; he also goes into the chemistry and physics of it. And he goes about it in a suitably whimsical way. Anyway, in Alton Brown’s cookbook he references McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen as one of his major sources—indeed, as a source that often goes a good bit beyond what he needs to know.

Well, Jane was looking for a present for me this past Christmas; she was ordering me some books through Amazon and wanted to get me just one more. I’m not sure just what prompted her to add this one to the list, but I don’t regret it. I’ve been reading it in small dribs and drabs ever since, and finally finished it up this morning.

It’s fascinating stuff. He covers the characteristics of the major foods (the different kinds of fruits, vegetables, grain, meat, nuts, and so forth); the different methods of cooking, and how they work; how the body digests food; it’s fairly comprehensive and very detailed.

For example, were you aware that fatty acids have a chemical structure very similar to that of octane and other hydrocarbon fuels? Octane is a chain of eight carbon atoms; each carbon atom has two hydrogen atoms attached to it on either side. The carbon atoms at the end have an extra hydrogen each. Octane reacts nicely with oxygen to give you carbon dioxide, water, and heat; it’s a lot of energy stored in a compact space. Fatty acids typically consist of longer chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms, very similar to octane’s longer cousins, with a carboxyl group at one end. And just like octane, fatty acids react nicely with oxygen.

The single neatest thing I learned from the book, though, is the secret of modern beekeeping: five-sixteenths of an inch, the so-called “bee space”. In the old days, it wasn’t possible to remove honey from a beehive without destroying the hive. A beekeeper harvested honey at the end of the season by destroying all but a few of his hives. In modern beehives, the honeycomb is built on to removeable racks which slide out the top of the hive. There’s a wire mesh below the racks that prevents the queen bee from getting up into that part of the hive; consequently, only honey is stored there.

And the bee space? That’s the required distance between the edge of the racks and the wall of the hive. If the gap is any smaller, the worker bees will seal it with wax; if it’s any larger, they’ll fill it with honey comb. But if it’s just five-sixteenths of an inch, they leave it open and use it as a highway.

Apparently the fellow who discovered this (a pastor and school principal turned beekeeper named Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth—and didn’t his parents have a fine time rolling out that name when they were angry at him)—I say, the fellow who discovered this patented his discovery, but it didn’t do him much good; infringement was too easy once the secret of the bee space was generally known.

So, if you like to cook and what to know just what’s going on in your oven or stewpot, or you’re just generally curious about how things work, On Food and Cooking is well worth your time.

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