Me and Harold McGee: a Food Celeb Interview!

Last winter I worried, "Am I screwing myself by throwing ice cubes in this pot of braised oxtails?" The idea was to cheat: speed the cooling process, skim off the fat sooner, then just reduce the braising liquid back to its original concentration. Done.

But would I be screwing up all of the gorgeous flavor extraction I'd just established with hours of slow-cooking, if only slightly? I scoured the seminal food science text, On Food and Cooking, hoping that its author, culinary scholar Harold McGee, would have an answer for me.


(The braise turned out fine, but the question still burned -- just a little.)

So when I was given the opportunity recently to interview
Harold McGee, I was stoked!

McGee currently pens an often revelatory New York Times column called The Curious Cook; I love his recent piece on double-dipping chips at a party -- is it truly is as germy as George complains on that episode of Seinfeld?

(It is!!)

photo: Karl Petzke

The author recently moved from Palo Alto up to San Francisco, CA, where I caught up with him at that
crazy umami conference in late July 2008. We talked about his cravings for Wallace Stevens, his go-to midnight snacks, his celebrity status, Michael Pollan's latest, and the new scoop from Spanish researchers on yeast and wine varietals.

Me and Harold McGee

Q: I was fascinated by the "Nutrition" chapter of On Food and Cooking [first published in 1984]; at one point you state that "America has had no single, strong national belief or cuisine." Has that changed?

A: No, I'd say if anything, it's more diverse than ever. There certainly isn't
a national style, right? It's getting even more fragmented than before -- which is fine."

Q: What about grilling?

A: Well, lots of people certainly do it, but deep-frying is [popular], too. Maybe not for home cooks; they're more likely to grill than to fry. more people grill than make pasta, for example?"

Q: Good point! I've got a home cook question for you, actually: when making a braise, like short ribs, I've been known to cheat and throw in ice cubes so the fat will congeal and I can skim the fat off more quickly. But now there's all this extra water in my braise; if I just reduce it off, has anything significant happened by adding and removing a lot of water?

A: No, in fact, a lot of professional kitchens do exactly that to save time, and the thing to remember is that during the cooking of a braise, or even a stock -- even if there are just bones and scraps of meat in there -- the longer the mix is at a high temperature, the more flavor you generate. If that means you have to cook it for an extra hour to get rid of the extra water, that's another hour of flavor development.

photo: WELL FED

Q: That makes me feel much better! I was looking through your Curious Cook columns; anything that's come up recently in your research or studies that's on your radar -- something on your to-write-about list -- that maybe you're not going to get to right away, but that you're excited about?

A: Let's see. My problem, usually, is that I've got a folder on my desktop of, like, 30 articles that I will see, get the PDF, and really want to do something with, but I've got to wait a month or two months because I've got my subject for next month already.

One thing I did see very recently, which is fascinating -- and that I'll have to wait on because I wrote about wine flavor just a couple months ago -- is the importance of yeast in bringing out the varietal flavor of grapes. We tend to think that the flavor of a wine is basically determined by the grapes -- Rieslings taste like Riesling, and Syrahs taste like Syrah -- but it turns out that if you use different strains of yeast, you end up with different flavors from the Riesling, and it may have more or less of a Riesling character depending on which strain of yeast you use.

People always knew that yeasts contribute to flavor, but there was this sort of wall between grape flavors and yeast flavors.

Q: Where'd this study come from?

A: Spain...Lots of good stuff on wine coming from Spain these days.

Q: Any favorite authors right now? Could be food-related, or not.

A: I'm reading David Sedaris [laughs]...and actually, Wallace Stevens -- I started out teaching literature, and for some reason I just felt a craving for Wallace Stevens recently, so I've been rereading some of his poetry.

Q: Cool! Why do you like David Sedaris?

A: Complete relief from everything else! It's the same planet, but another planet at the same time...really refreshing.

Q: Have you read the latest Michael Pollan book, In Defense of Food? I found myself reading his chapter on nutritionism while reading your chapter on nutrition in On Food and Cooking. Wondering if you had any strong agree or disagree moments while reading what he wrote?

A: I get the sense that he thinks the people doing nutrition research are culpable, and that they are responsible for our crazy ways of thinking about food. I think it is true that because nutrition is not so much on the radar screen of the media, food scientists in general may play up things in their research that are kindof premature, but people are responsible for how they, themselves, think.

So, if you're interested in health, then you don't just stop at what the newspaper gives you as a headline this week -- you learn about it. I think most people who reflect on it rather than just jumping on the latest bandwagon realize that it's complicated, and that there are some basic things that we've known about for decades that are still true, and there's a lot of interesting stuff that you want to keep track of.

But -- if there were a magic bullet, everyone would be shooting themselves with it. I guess my feeling is that most people doing the research are genuinely interested in advancing knowledge and are not trying to sell a party line.

Q: Are you obsessing over any particular foods or ingredients lately?

A: Well, not in a major way, but I've got a caper plant, and I'm curing capers. So that's what I check when I get up in the morning each day, is "How are my capers coming along?"

It's a really amazing transformation. They start out as these obnoxious, cabbage-y buds -- really unpleasant. A day or two in salt, and you open the jar, and you get the smell of violets, and raspberries -- it's crazy, and wonderful.

Q: What would you make for a midnight snack?

A: Either I'll have a little bit of ice cream with some nuts, or if I'm hungry in a different kind of way, I'll get a piece of pita bread, grate some gruyere on top, and stick it in the toaster oven.

Q: Sweet. If you had to whip up a meal from whatever's in your pantry or your fridge, what might you make?

A: I actually got home late last night and didn't have a lot of time to do anything, so I took a can of crushed tomatoes and diluted it about 50/50 with water to make a soup instead of a sauce. I always have around a little piece of Boccalone or Fra'Mani salami, so I chopped one of those up, and I had some spinach, I guess? So I just washed it and stirred it into the liquid and stuck it in the microwave -- with a bay leaf -- and three minutes later I had my dinner. Lots of umami, too, with the tomatoes and cured meats!

Q: Any word on a TV show? I read a
great interview with you by Bruce Cole, the Edible San Francisco guy, from a few years ago, that mentioned the possibility of a TV show in the future. Is that still on your to-do list?

A: Well, I get approached regularly by producers, and we have a great lunch, but that's kind of the last of it [laughing]; I haven't had lunch with a producer for a while, so no plans in the works.

Q: What are some of the odder circumstances you've found yourself in? I mean, you're a bit of a celebrity, albeit in the food world! Any fun -- or horrible -- run-ins with fame?

A: Actually, a couple of times -- I won't name names -- I've either been with other people in the business, or I've been on my own and I've been recognized, and some places, chefs will kindof drop everything and do something special for you. Often that's nice; often it's kindof overwhelming, because you only wanted a salad and a pasta or something like that. But a couple times it's been really awful [laughing]; they've pulled out the stops, they've done something really special, and it was really nasty. But you have to say, "Oh, thank you!"

Q: Funny. Did you ever have occasion to meet [legendary expat cookbook author]
Richard Olney?

A: No...No actually, I did, once, at a launch of one of his books, in London -- but it was only to shake hands, and my book had just been published. The person I was with at the reception introduced me to him, and said, "Harold has written a book about the science of cooking," and he'd clearly never heard of it, and so, he shook my hand, smiled nicely, and said, "I don't get out much."

Richard Olney's kitchen hearth, from The French Menu Cookbook

Q: That's pretty funny.

A: If I lived in the countryside in France, I wouldn't feel obliged to get out much either!

Q: Definitely not. Any favorite Bay Area restaurants or markets that you're particularly excited about?

A: Well, I love the Alemany Market. It's great; it's a completely different atmosphere from the Ferry Building, of course, which is wonderful in its own way, but this is more down to earth -- and it's easier to park [laughing]. Really unusual Asian herbs that I wouldn't see elsewhere...

And then know, I've only just moved up here, so I'm still learning what's where, but there are restaurants of a couple of friends of mine that I just love to go to, because the people are wonderful, and the food is great; those are Incanto and Coi.


And there you have it, my little chat with Harold McGee.
In case you couldn't tell already, I'll tell you straight off that Harold McGee is a swell fellow! One of the friendliest and most well-spoken people I've had the pleasure of meeting.

Speaking of Incanto...wouldn't you know it, this week, SF Station finally got around to reviewing Incanto, celeb chef Chris Cosentino's Noe Valley neighborhood spot.
We've been meaning to cover Incanto forever, having heard grand whispers for years about Cosentino's work with salumi and offal.

Then he got mega-famous on "Iron Chef," etc., and opened a fancy salumi place at the Ferry Building! The whispers have become shouts, and the pig trotters are out of the bag. Good for him. Tasty for us!

Look for Dan Goldstein's review to hit the rotation this Friday on the
SF Station Restaurants page. Those trotters may be more accessible than you think!



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