This issue features a “micro-interview” with Harold McGee, conducted by Rachel Khong. Harold McGee is the author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, a canonical yet extremely readable 680-page compendium of food history, scientific fact, and kitchen lore. The book was hailed as a “minor masterpiece” upon its first release, in 1984; in 2004, its revised edition was met with comparably hearty fanfare. Flipping to a page at random, you might find information about breadfruit, “Guidelines for Succulent Braises and Stews,” or a poem about dumplings, circa 300 AD. McGee also writes the “Curious Cook” column in the New York Times, proffering food for the thoughtful on a more or less monthly basis: why fish-frying is greatly improved with a shot of vodka; how rats are able to distinguish between organic and inorganic produce. Prior to becoming a food-science writer, McGee studied literature at Caltech and Yale. His vocational trajectory took a turn toward the culinary when a friend asked an unlikely life-changing question: why do beans make us gassy?
THE BELIEVER: What is it about toasting that makes toast so delicious?
HAROLD McGEE: Actually, lots of things fall under that rubric, because it’s browning with heat, and browning is basically heating proteins and sugars high enough that they begin to react with each other. Protein has no flavor of its own—sugar’s just sweet on its own—but when you heat them together they generate hundreds and hundreds of compounds that are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and have aroma. It’s like stellar nucleosynthesis: it’s creating the universe in a star. When you toast something, the visual sign that it’s happening is the color change, and the chemical-senses sign is the developing aroma. If fat is involved you end up with fried aromas; if high, dry temperatures are involved, that’s roast flavors; if it’s very intense, very rapid heating and very close distance then that’s toasting. That’s also relatively dry. So there are distinctions among those different things, but they all come down to browning at high heat.
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