The How And Why Of Cooking Is Food Writer's Obsession

December 30, 1990|By Joyce Gemperlein | Joyce Gemperlein,Knight-Ridder News Service

PALO ALTO, CALIF. — Palo Alto, Calif.-- Harold McGee places three sets of eyeglasses atop three different upturned copper bowls. The bowls are sitting on the old-fashioned stove in his old-fashioned kitchen.

Mr. McGee explains to a photographer that he still needs a frying pan with maybe a pork chop or an egg in it, some grease and -- of course -- his Chicago Cubs baseball cap. Mr. McGee is demonstrating how grease ends up on the inside of your glasses when you are frying something and why it is best to put on a baseball cap rather than a scarf or a toque when a skillet is asizzle.

"So," says the photographer as he peers at the weird still life atop Mr. McGee's stove burners. "This is a hobby, right? You don't do this for a living, right?"

But Mr. McGee does. Or, at least, it is part of what he does for a living.

Mr. McGee loves food. Aside from that, what he thinks most often when it comes to food is: "Why?" and "How?"

Mr. McGee's first foray into the field of food science came in 1984 when he published "On Food and Cooking." The 700-page book, an encyclopedic overview of what mankind knows about food, "fascinated" M. F. K. Fisher and was called a "minor masterpiece" by Time magazine. Preparing that book, which went through eight hardcover printings, kept Mr. McGee skulking around libraries researching the history and makeup of foodstuffs.

Then about three years ago, Mr. McGee began writing "The Curious Cook" (North Point Press, 1990, $19.95). The book, which has "why?" and "how?" as its central theme, caused Mr. McGee to split his time between being a Dr. Jekyll in the library and being a Mr. Hyde in the kitchen.

To research "The Curious Cook," Mr. McGee spent hundreds of hours in local libraries, many times at Stanford University, delving into subjects such as cancer and fat, the work of Brillat-Savarin and China's rich history with persimmons.

But he also conducted experiments to find out whether long-held beliefs -- for instance, whether searing meat at a high heat keeps it juicier than slow cooking -- are true. He conducted other experiments because he wanted to see how something that seemed like magic really worked. In doing so, he often crossed over the line of normal behavior.

One day, for example, he shaped aluminum foil on his face like mask and wore it while frying. For several weeks, while running experiments on marination, he had garbage bags full of meat and marinade stashed in his garage. Another week found him lowering pork chops in plastic berry baskets into vats of liquid, using a laboratory ring stand.

One day his wife, Sharon Long, came home to find bowls of guacamole on the kitchen counters. Even though she is a professor of biology at Stanford and familiar with the types of tableaux that experimentation can create, she was surprised to see light bulbs plunked into the mashed avocado mixtures.

Perhaps the most harmonious period of his experimentation occurred during his testing of ways to make fruit ices. Ms. Long and the couple's two young children were treated to endless cups of granita made from every fruit imaginable.

So Mr. McGee's a wild and crazy guy? On the contrary.

He's about to take his show on the road, about to do a book tour for "The Curious Cook." But the idea doesn't thrill him. He's not a showy fellow -- not as he puts it, "a parader" or a magician.

He's no Julia Child; he's friendly but reserved. Even in blue jeans, he has an air of class; he's no Yan Can Cook. He's a graduate of the California Institute of Technology and Yale but grew up in Chicago, where his mother was fond of making tuna casserole and Jell-O molds with fruit suspended in them.

He thinks hamburgers are "one of the pinnacles of civilization."

Bearded, bespectacled, built like a bean and with a voice that doesn't project, Mr. McGee would rather spend hours with a library's Dewey Decimal System or fiddle in his own kitchen than do a book tour.

He's always hoped that both "On Food and Cooking" and "The Curious Cook" would someday be on every cook's bookshelf next to the legendary "Joy of Cooking." (Which, by the way, he found perpetuates a few myths about cooking.)

He doesn't think that has happened, but his books are becoming recommended reading at culinary schools, and people in Northern California who know food refer to them often. Chefs call him often with questions.

"That's nice, but I really wrote my books for people at home," he says.

Mr. McGee, 39, who says he's only a passable cook, didn't start out to be a food scientist, investigative reporter or guru.

/# He says he intended to be an as

tronomer when he began studying at Cal Tech but, as happens to many in college, "when you see what a career actually entails, your view changes."

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