Review: McGee on Food and Cooking

My copy of McGee on Food and Cooking arrived yesterday.

It was, as I had understood, the revised version.  Indeed, it is quite heavily revised, because a lot of things changed in the 20 years between 1984 and 2004.  The new version is very useful.  It has entire sets of ingredients that weren’t mentioned in the original.  One of these ingredients is agar agar, so you’d think I’d be very happy.

And I am, sort of.  This book is very well-organised and, I suspect, of a lot more practical use than the 1984 version.  I’m sure I’ll find it very handy.  But just at the moment, I’m a little bit disappointed.

My problem with this book can be summed up in a single statement: it doesn’t have turgid vegetables.  I mean, it does, but they are much more G-rated than they were in the 1984 edition* (yes, it was the first thing I looked up.  Yes, I know this makes me very immature.  But that was the funniest piece of food writing I have ever seen and I had to make sure it was still there!).  The vegetables may be turgid, but it doesn’t have the bit about the burst of juice, the walls rupturing and the vegetables becoming limp and flaccid.  I don’t think it even has the firm erect vegetable quote, either.  It’s very disappointing.   My food porn has been tamed, whitewashed, de-fanged – nay, emasculated!

(* I am informed by those who know more of this than me that technically the new edition has R-rated vegetables as opposed to the XXX-rated vegetables of the first edition.  The term ‘money shot’ was used in relation to the first edition, at which point I decided that I had no need to explore this any further.)

Now, I didn’t actually buy this book for its turgid vegetables (indeed, I ordered it before I got to that part), so it isn’t a complete loss.  It pains me to say, however, that this toning down of the turgor is reflective of a trend in the book as a whole.  A cursory inspection shows me that there is more *useful* information about ingredients in this volume than there was in the earlier addition, but to make room for this, much of the entertaining trivia has been removed.  The first edition was strangely addictive.  One could open it at random and become instantly absorbed by the engaging anecdotes, weird trivia, and occasional purple prose.  And along the way, one would learn some chemistry, and it would stick, because knowing that egg-whites beaten in a copper bowl are not merely stronger but also yellow in colour and slightly toxic (as opposed to egg-whites beaten in an iron bowl, which are pink but not stable at all) is much more interesting than knowing that egg-whites beaten in a copper bowl are more stable than egg-whites beaten in, say, a glass bowl, because the copper ions bind to the ovalbumin proteins in ways which make the foam stronger.  It was, frankly, an awesome book and a good read in its own right.

The new edition is a reference book, one which you use to look up things that you actually need to know when cooking or meddling with recipes.  It’s a good reference book – very well-organised and well laid-out, with occasional bits of historical and other trivia to amuse the amateur kitchen chemist.  But it’s not the sort of book you read from cover to cover.  Or not the sort I’d read from cover to cover at any rate.

It will be useful.  It will go on my shelves with my other culinary encyclopedias, ready for the times I need to find out just exactly how agar differs from gelatine (carbohydrate gelling versus protein gelling, apparently), and it will be easy to find the information I need.

But I’ll be going online as soon as I finish this post to see if I can find the first edition, because encyclopedias are all very well, but I want a book I can read.

The new edition of McGee’s book can be found at The Book Depository.  The first edition appears to be available from Abe Books.  It’s less useful, but a lot more fun.

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4 comments for “Review: McGee on Food and Cooking

  1. 5-tails
    August 6, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    I’ll confess that I was a little apprehensive when I followed the link to this post. I’ve been contemplating buying a copy of this as a gift for a certain cat-thing since I got to flick through it at a friend’s house (ironically, about three days before you picked it up yourself…), so I was a concerned by the hints of disappointment in your comments.

    However, I suspect we can probably live without turgid vegetables in our library, entertaining as they were!

    • August 6, 2011 at 11:06 pm

      I, on the other hand, need the turgid vegetable edition.

      For the articles, you understand.

      • 5-tails
        August 7, 2011 at 5:49 pm

        Oh, quite.

        Well, one must do what one must do… *grin*

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