Speakers at Identità Milano: Harold McGee, the scholar who gives scientific dignity to food

In the kitchen, every little action deserves rigorous investigation, the best-selling author of 'On Food & Cooking' has been saying for over 40 years. Portrait of a special person

Harold James McGee, 72 years old, American. He wil

Harold James McGee, 72 years old, American. He will be on stage at Identità Milano on Monday 28th January 2023, at 10.55 a.m., in the Auditorium. Title of the talk: The universe of odours (photo by Gabriela Hasbun)

The defining theme of the 18th edition of the Identità Milano (28/30 January) is well-known: 'Revolution'. In a nutshell, it is time for cuisine and catering to dare as never before. This is why, among the first speakers at the Identità Golose congress, we will have Harold McGee, an American scientist capable, like very few others, of giving scientific dignity to food and cooking. We will be honoured to host him on the stage in Via Gattamelata on Monday, 28 January, at 10.55 a.m. in the Auditorium. Here is a presentation.

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1951 and raised in Chicago, Harold McGee developed a passion for astronomy at a young age. But he graduated in Literature from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and then obtained a PhD in Romantic Literature. His doctoral thesis has a prophetic title: "Keats and the Progress of Taste", where Keats is John, the supreme Romantic poet who died at a very young age, and the dissertation's supervisor is Harold Bloom, a monument of 20th-century literary criticism. Before becoming an author and lecturer on the science of food, McGee was passionate about literature and writing, two disciplines he would teach at Yale University.

Over time, his true passion, the chemistry of food and cooking, took shape. 'My chef-trained students,' McGee would later recall, 'complained that their lecturers refused to reveal the whys of certain cooking preparations. 'It's just how it is done,' they would peremptorily reply. But times are changing rapidly: today's chefs are much more curious and innovation-oriented. And so they must be able to count on a solid scientific basis to support what they do.’

ON FOOD & COOKING. This was the spark for the work that would give our author a significant reputation in academic and gastronomic circles. In 1984, he published 'On Food & Cooking: The Science & Lore of the Kitchen', his most important work, enriched in 2004 by a second, larger edition. In the synopsis of the latest Italian translation, 'Il cibo e la cucina', published in 2016 by Ricca editore, we read: 'If you've ever wondered why fish cooks faster than meat; why you should let pancake batter rest; why chopped onions make you cry; about the health benefits (or harms) of alcohol; why eating chilli peppers causes as much suffering as pleasure; how to distinguish old eggs from fresh ones; or even whether the egg came first or the chicken - then this is the book for you'.

In short, McGee applies the scientific method to everyday topics: ingredients and cooking techniques. In fact, he has built a new genre, giving light and dignity to issues wrongly neglected or historically considered irrelevant. For example, why pastry chefs have always whipped egg whites in copper bowls? Or why water should be added to enrich the taste of coffee and cocktails. On Food & Cooking is not only a demonstration of science applied to cooking but also, and above all, a rich journey through the history of food, gastronomy and taste, with diagrams, photos and quotations dating from Plutarch to Brillat-Savarin... A small bible of its kind, appreciated by chefs such as Daniel Boulud ("An indispensable work for any cook with an inquiring spirit") or Heston Blumenthal ("it is the text that has had the greatest impact on my profession").

For these reasons, over the last four decades, McGee has taught or lectured on the subject in prestigious universities and institutions (Oxford, the Denver Natural History Museum, the French Culinary Institute of America, Harvard, the Basque Culinary Center...), writes/has written for magazines such as Nature, Health, World Book Encyclopedia The Art of Eating, Food & Wine, Fine Cooking or Physics Today and has long held a column for the New York Times called The Curious Cook, which can still be read online, a place where the professor enjoyed demolishing false truths about cooking or launching new provocations: the real reason why a good chunk of the world hates coriander, why even the finest extra virgin olive oils lose all their properties if they are heated up, the ideal ratio between the amount of cooking water to use to cook a certain amount of dry pasta... All this always with positivist rigour and a considerable dose of irony, which is essential to make sometimes difficult and nerdy content accessible.

THE UNIVERSE OF ODOURS. The most recent research of Harold McGee's work is related to an even more fascinating theme, the universe of odours, the osmocosm, as the author himself defines it with a neologism in 'Nose dive. A field guide to the world's smells', a work that has not yet been translated into Italian, summing up the last decade of studies.

"It is proven," McGee explained in a valuable online talk for Mad kids, "that in inter-stellar space ammonia and hydrogen sulphide molecules are floating around that have much in common with the smell of rotten eggs, fruity aromas and even vinegar. We must ask ourselves why oysters have molecules in common with cucumbers. Why do we find pleasant wines with a fruity smell but also those that smell of incommutable elements, such as saddle leather? The sense of smell raises enormous questions and provides information that would otherwise be impossible to obtain”. And then: “Taste only reveals the essential characteristics of a food. But the varieties that the sense of smell intercepts are quantitatively unparalleled”. This is the theme of his lecture at the Identità Milano 2023 congress, on Monday, 28th  January, at 10.55 a.m. in the Auditorium. Not to be missed.

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso

IG2023: ladies and gentlemen, the revolution has been served


Gabriele Zanatta

born in Milan, 1973, freelance journalist, coordinator of Identità Golose World restaurant guidebook since 2007, he is a contributor for several magazines and teaches History of gastronomy and Culinary global trends into universities and institutes. 
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