More and more cooks, and more and more people who like their food (gourmets, gourmands and gastronomes – but please not that appalling neologism, ‘foodies’), are showing an interest in the scientific basis of cooking techniques and the mechanics of taste. Why and how do certain dishes come to taste as they do? The latest edition of The Good Food Guide, which remains, for all its shortcomings (such as an excessive reliance on consumer feedback), the most reliable guide to British restaurants, has an interesting article by two scientists on their work with trained ‘taste panels’. It seems that some people are physiologically more sensitive to some chemicals than others and therefore perceive them differently: ‘a matter of taste’ is a figure of speech which would appear to be corroborated by science.
The publication in this country of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, a best-seller in the US, is therefore particularly timely. McGee, one of those rare people who is as much at home wielding scientific terminology as he is discussing Carême’s classification of sauces, sets out to explain ‘the nature of our foods, what they are made of and where they come from, how they are transformed by cooking, when and why particular culinary habits took hold’. With its abundance of scientific diagrams and electron microscope photographs, his book looks forbiddingly technical, but is not. McGee has digested a vast number of facts which he presents in a very palatable form for the layman. As in that admirable Victorian compendium, Enquire within upon everything, topics are described succinctly and arranged into easily assimilated sections with headings. The book tells you most of what you would want to know about the nature and properties of milk, cheese, meat, herbs, vegetables, fruit, grains, nuts, sugar, alcohol and so on; it explains why egg whites can be beaten stiff more easily in a copper bowl, why poultry has dark and light meat, why sauces thicken, why pastry dough needs to rest, why bread rises, what browning does to foods, and countless other alchemical aspects of the kitchen.
Possibly because his training straddles two disciplines, McGee is quite prepared to admit, on occasion, the nescience of science. Apparently we still have only a sketchy idea of how churning produces butter, why fresh hard-boiled eggs are more difficult to peel than staler ones, what happens to meat when it ages during hanging, what toxin is contained in rhubarb leaves, how dry yeast behaves, and – surprisingly, in view of the importance attributed to it in many fashionable diets – how fibre affects digestion and even what it actually is. It is nice to learn that the Maya and Aztec anticipated modern science by discovering empirically that, before being eaten, maize needs to be processed with an alkaline substance, such as ashes or lime: if consumed untreated, as it was when first introduced to Europe, it causes pellagra.
Most of the time, though, it is science which has much to teach the cook. McGee explains exactly why, for example, vegetables put in large quantities of already boiling water and cooked uncovered for a few minutes will keep their greenness. We learn how to make iced tea that is not cloudy and sauces that do not curdle. The great school-cabbage mystery is solved at last: the longer cabbage boils, the greater the number of unpleasant compounds it forms, including hydrogen sulphide and mercaptan, ‘some of the most odoriferous and odious chemicals known to man’ – as the inhabitants of Basle recently discovered when a chemical plant burnt down. Worse still, sunlight reacting with a hop resin in your picnic glass of beer forms isopentenyl mercaptan, a chemical ‘which has relatives in the skunk’s defensive arsenal’. Did you know that capsaicin, an alkaloid found in chillies, is used in anti-mugger sprays, or that a volatile substance in onions, when dissolved in the fluids of the eye, turns into nothing less than vitriol?
Several types of cheese, the author says, contain bacteria and moulds which seem to slow down tooth decay. Which cheeses? This he does not reveal. Polymathy has its drawbacks: he tells us so much about so many things that we thirst for more and more facts and explanations. He gives a fascinating eight-page account of various scientific investigations into the mysterious behaviour of sauce béarnaise (an emulsion of vinegar, egg yolks and butter), but says not a word about that even more mysterious and tricky sauce, beurre blanc (just vinegar, water and butter). Why do some cheeses repel when we smell them, but produce pleasure when we eat them, at which moment they are both tasted and smelled, via the back of the mouth? The answer may be partly psychological. Psychology does not seem to be McGee’s strong point: ‘If we eat half as many calories [by eating fructose instead of sucrose], we simply get hungry earlier’ begs a lot of questions. He will probably come up with more answers in subsequent editions of his book, which will no doubt become a standard reference work. If it does, the publishers will have to pull up their socks: Part Two ends in mid-word, and the index is frustratingly inadequate.
Because McGee speaks with such authority, the slightest mistake sticks out like a sore thumb. He states, incorrectly, that the US has one-fifteenth of the world population (it is actually closer to a twentieth – which only makes its consumption of a third of the world’s meat more shocking); and his remarks on dill, basil, gin and vodka contain minor inaccuracies. More seriously, he becomes much less persuasive the moment he gets anywhere near the subject of consumerism. The healthy scepticism which informs the rest of the book and allows him to debunk several persistent myths vanishes when it comes to weighing the claims of food manufacturers against those put forward by consumer groups. If we consume possibly dangerous foods, McGee says disingenuously, it is our fault because we like them. This conveniently overlooks the fact that the industry can create a taste – as Nestlé did in Africa for stock cubes.
More than once, it seems to me, a false syllogism creeps into his argument: we should accept the risks in additives in return for nice-looking, convenient food, just as we accept calculated risks for the convenience of driving or flying. But are such risks really necessary in the case of foods? True, consumers have been conditioned, over the generations, to prefer sausages and ham that have been kept pink by nitrites: but the same consumers are perfectly prepared to eat grey-coloured cold pork (significantly, nowhere does McGee discuss colourings as such, even omitting them from his list of ingredients for soft drinks). He argues that because in the ‘good old days’ of home-cured meats we got much higher, and therefore more dangerous, doses of nitrites, there can be no harm in a spot of nitrite in our diet today. He gets a little confused at one point, calling nitrites ‘a triply useful additive’ and ‘possibly hazardous’ on the same page. Another example of his bias is the sophistical claim that the growth hormones given to meat-producing animals are ‘unintentional contaminants’ (his italics) of food. Despite his anti-consumerist stance, McGee supports the government-imposed fluoridation of drinking water (to fight tooth decay) because it is in ‘the public good’.
Perhaps McGee tends to side with the food industry because of his contempt for food faddists. He can be caustically funny about their lunatic fringes, whether vegetarian (the English chemist Halliburton described beef tea bouillon as ‘simply an ox’s urine in a tea cup’), carnivorous (Dr Salisbury urged a diet containing three pounds of meat a day), masticatory (retired businessman Horace Fletcher recommended 50 chews per mouthful of food and set a fashion for ‘munching parties’), or horticultural (a Twenties book on the supposed virtues of yoghurt was called Intestinal Gardening for the Prolongation of Youth). In the same humorous vein, which is refreshing in a book of this kind, McGee tells us how a certain Diemer perfected the manufacture of bubblegum when he developed a gum which produced larger bubbles than its not very popular predecessor, Blibber-Blubber, and ‘was more easily removed from nose and cheeks’. And it is a long time since I read anything as funny as his mock-serious discussion of flatulence, and in particular of the potentially disastrous consequences of farting in a space vehicle.
Richard Olney, an American expert on food and wine who has lived in France since 1951, has many qualities, but humour is not one. The second and revised edition of The French Menu Cookbook contains the same catholic selection of recipes as the first, but has additional material in its very instructive introductory section on menu composition, wines and cooking techniques. Olney remarks, dismissively, that ‘the maniacal precisions of weights, measures and oven temperatures imposed on modern cookbooks serve to soothe feelings of insecurity in the timid cook.’ Yet he himself gives almost maniacally precise and graphic directions – indeed, that is one of the great merits of this beautifully produced book, along with Olney’s always pertinent advice on a variety of subjects (such as the correct temperature for red wine: drink it on the cool side) and his imperviousness to the sillier precepts of nouvelle cuisine, such as the total banning of flour from the kitchen. The Olney style, mannered and just a little smug – ‘The present menu may seem archaic in concept, but the drama of succeeding and interrelated food and wine scents and tastes, contained in a harmonious structure, can be created in no simpler way’ – has something of a cult following in America, but I wish he could come up with some livelier terms than ‘happy’ or ‘exciting’ to describe his culinary experiences or suggestions.
Paul Levy, another American, who writes on food in the Observer and elsewhere, is a very different animal. I cannot see him sitting down like Olney and sorting a heap of garden peas into two categories, large and small. He has enthusiasm rather than dedication. While Olney’s personality is discreetly perceptible in his writing (a bit like the garlic flavour he imparts to dishes by rubbing his wooden spoon with half a clove), Levy’s latest book, a collection of his newspaper articles, reveals the man once dubbed ‘King Foodie’ in all his fullness. He is – and he knows it – a mild snob and a name-dropper, bumptious, provocative, opinionated and flippant. But there is even more to Levy than meets the eye. Behind the facetiousness, there is genuine wit, as in his description of Julia Child trying, in ‘an act of sheer hubris’ on television, to toss a gigantic potato crêpe, which remained lodged on the studio rafters, or of a Heath Robinson olive-stuffing machine that botches the job 50 per cent of the time, producing variants of stuffed olives ‘to the limits of solid geometry’. Levy, an academic manqué, is always erudite, particularly on non-European cuisines, and often deeply serious, as in his frank and affectionate profiles of Elizabeth David, Claudia Roden, Alan Davidson and Christopher Driver. Above all, he has an endearingly amateur – in both senses – quality. Symptomatic of this is a detail volunteered by Ann Barr in her introduction. She tells us, with a pregnant use of the conjunction, that ‘he had a special little greenhouse for basil until it fell down.’