My Food Job Rocks!
Ep. 245 – Food is Science, Smell is Music with Harold McGee, Author of On Food and Cooking and Nose Dive

Ep. 245 – Food is Science, Smell is Music with Harold McGee, Author of On Food and Cooking and Nose Dive

It is an honor to interview the man who introduced one of the first popular culinary science books and probably has inspired thousands of food science professionals, Harold McGee.

Harold McGee’s writing style is unique because he really deep dives into a very specific topic. Food Science and culinary friends might recognize him from the book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, but now he has a new, stellar book about smells! Nose Dive, A Field Guide to the World of Smells is a fascinating book that dives into not just food smells, but also dives into other interesting smells such as flowers, the human body, and the stars! If you are a food scientist, having a grasp of smells, might be useful in your career.

What is probably the best lesson from the famed author Harold McGee, is that he reinvented himself multiple times. His intent was actually being an astronomy but he pivoted multiple times form literature, and then food and what you discovered is that Harold McGee’s success comes from this unlimited curiosity whenever he is passionate in a subject. So these threads, from astronomy, to poetry, to cooking, to smells, has a common theme: intense curiosity.

Lots of things to uncover in this interview. From the journey that Harold McGee took to write his smash hit, his lucky opportunity getting the book out there, and Harold’s thoughts on how food has eveolve din his life time.

Also learn why Harold wrote a new book, and what he thinks about humans recreating animal-like products like meat and honey. He has a closer connection to it than you think.

Show Notes

Harold McGee wrote about food in 1970
I started writing about food because I couldn’t get a job in literature
I did Astronomy first and then switched to literature
Why did you get into Astronomy?: I recall a project in 2nd or 3rd grade
Cal Tech
I was able to study with a person who figured out that the elements were from the stars
What got you into literature?: Standing looking in the stars had to do more with feelings and emotions rather than calculations and I realized I wanted to write
What influenced your writing style?:  I did a thesis on 19th century English poetry
What is your opinion on Science and Art?: I try to not pigeon-hole science and try and shape it to be more understanding
Liebig – Searing meats seal in the juices?
Science doesn’t even have a lock on authority. My publisher liked me to talk about cooking, but to add stories when describing things. He really changed the way I write
Keys to Good Cooking
How do you write about a specific topic?: I really love research. Especially these days, we have the internet
If you research a lot, you have to cut things?: Yes, I have a ton of left over notes.
Who was talking with you when this book came out?: Actually, nobody in the 1980s. Nobody was really using unique cooking ingredients.
Mimi Sheraton – Wrote an article on Time Magazine about the book and it exploded
The people I heard form most were not professional cooks, but actually students who wanted to be professional cooks.
They would try to get professional chefs to answer questions that wasn’t answered in the book but the chefs wouldn’t give them stellar advice
How has food evolved in your life time?: More accessibility to more cool things. A growing interest in food and drink and experience.
Food has evolved, hasn’t it?: Yes, how I ate and my kids ate is completely different
My Food Job Rocks: I’m amazed about the complexity of cooking. And there’s more to come
Let’s talk about the science of smells: I started to dive into flavors at first but then my curiosity took me to a new place: smells. Why did flowers have the same smell of oysters?
Borage flowers have the same smell of oysters and cucumbers
I had to talk to Flavor Chemists when we work together. How do you communicate smells?: Smells are based off of objective facts and biological memories. Training is all about training that database
My job was to give a field guide to smells. Not fully subjective, but a mix of both
In the book, there are tons of comparative tables
If you “listen” to smells, you can actually get a lot more out of things
Top Note
Base Note
Perfumers actually have a similar method on describing smells
When you focus, the smells actually dissipate and you can understand the aroma better.
Do you have a method of smelling?: I kind of “pump” my breath so you breathe out and you get some interesting smells. I create an accordion motion with my tongue and that gives me more of a sequence of experiences than one long understanding
How do you feel about alternative meat?: Actually, my kids played soccer with Pat Brown’s kids so I knew him in the circles. One day, Pat called me and we had a talk about a crazy food idea that ended up being Impossible Foods.
The products are getting closer and for the right reasons. I’m greatful for the personal happenstance that allowed me to get into that industry
Will this help scientists?: Yes, it’s a good overview of understanding smells. It can help you be a human GCO in some sense
GCO – Gas Chromatography
What is one thing in the food industry you’d like to know more about?: I get a lot of alerts from science journals
Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry
Chemistry and Biodiversity
Do you have any advice for someone to stretch their curiosity?: Yes, take advantage of the availability of information. You can get interested in something and go to Google Scholar and just type in a couple of key words and you’ll see amazing things that are published
Don’t just limit yourself to a particular discipline or a particular field, they bloom when they synergize
Where can we find you for advice?: Nose Dive should be on the shelves and also online stores
I can be found at my website,

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