It's tough to be a contender when nobody knows what category you're competing in. After publishing "On Food and Cooking" in 1984--a best-seller that's still in print--Harold McGee followed it up last year with "The Curious Cook." It's a curious book; too curious, evidently, for either the Beard or the I.A.C.P awards.
"On Food and Cooking" was a compilation of scientific knowledge about food. "The Curious Cook" is a collection of McGee's own kitchen researches, and it reads more like a collection of detective stories than a reference work. As a result, the publisher of his first book wouldn't touch it; neither recent book award event gave it a prize. But if there had been a category for intellectual excitement in a food book . . .
A few months ago, Harold McGee visited The Times, expecting to talk about salmonella in eggs. It's the hottest issue dealt with in his new book, and he was ready with a copy of the scientific correspondence page of Nature Magazine, where he first reported his technique for making salmonella-free mayonnaise from home-sterilized yolks.
Avoiding salmonella is what everybody wants to know about (although, as he points out, salmonella-infected eggs are not yet an important problem in the West), but to him the things he learned about sauces along the way were just as interesting. "We think in categories," he said, "while there's actually a continuum of possibilities, in the case of thickened sauces from light beurre blanc to starch-stabilized hollandaise, or from thick mayonnaise with much egg yolk to a pourable mayonnaise sauce with little."
With his neatly trimmed beard and owlish spectacles, McGee certainly looks the part of an eager scholar. But he thinks anybody can be a food researcher.
"One of my points in this book was, you don't have to be a rocket scientist, as we say, to play with things and figure out better ways of doing them. For instance, what stimulated my study of the puckering power of persimmons was ancient Chinese and Japanese recipes for (softening persimmons by) mud and sake burial.
"Basically, I'm interested in aesthetic progress. With my first book I figured since it was a compendium of existing research, it would be pretty obvious, the restaurant people must have this stuff under their belts already. But it turned out they didn't. At school they were just given instructions to follow with no explanations, no testing."
Surprisingly often there's been a personal motivation in his research. For instance, when he investigated the unquestioned principle that you must never wash mushrooms, he was hoping to find it was wrong.
"My wife had a mushroom brush," he says, "and I dutifully used it, but I found the brush actually pushed dirt into the flesh. I'd get grit in my teeth in the salad. It just always seemed wrong to me--seeing dirt there and being told you couldn't wash it off." Fortunately, he proved washing had no bad effects on mushrooms.
"Somebody might look at this book," he admits, "and say it is the work of a lazy guy. I recommend the easy hollandaise, not dropping in melted butter drop by drop but just mixing everything together and cooking it."
Some time ago McGee decided to investigate a way of roasting turkey that promised to keep the white meat from drying out. "Someone had sent me a Portuguese recipe," he said, "where you soak the bird four or five hours in water, with the body cavity filled with salt. Then you wash off the salt. You make a stuffing of bread, butter and nuts moistened with stock and stuff it between the skin and the breast. Then you sew up the body cavity empty and roast it.
"The water in the stock would be what protects the white meat from drying out. I don't know whether the salt is functional. Maybe the salt dehydrates the skin, making it easier to separate it from the flesh. The friend who sent me the recipe said the breast comes out very juicy and the skin comes out very brown and very crisp, like Chinese duck skin. However, he also said the turkey was very salty. I'm hoping the salt isn't necessary."
A few weeks later he sent a letter reporting success with the Portuguese turkey technique.
"We tried the subcutaneous turkey stuffing--without the preliminary salting. Amazingly, we fit under the breast skin as much stuffing as usually fills the cavity plus another pan. The meat came out nicely, but the real advantage was that the skin was quite crisp and bonded to the stuffing. Reheated, chunks of this composite were still very crisp and flavorful on the surface, whereas leftover skin on the bird was its usual flaccid self."
Science had triumphed again.