Scribner (2004), $35
The literary subgenre of readable reference books is a select one, its examples defined by the outwardly conflicting virtues of relentless fact and compelling prose. One of my favorites is Waverley Root's Food, a hefty slab of scholarship that is nevertheless rich with attitude, opinion, and the author's distinctive misanthropic voice. Another work on the same subject, Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, has been a mainstay of the food lover's home library since it was first published in 1984. Like Root's 1980 tome, On Food tackles the imposing subject of the earthly raw materials that nourish and delight us, but McGee's book goes further in looking at what we do with those materials in the kitchen and how they interact on both a scientific and a culinary level.
Now McGee has published a second edition of this modern classic, rewriting and updating most of the text and expanding it to more than half again its previous girth. In its new and improved state, On Food and Cooking is an even more thoroughgoing amalgam of history, science, literature, and cooking tips, and it covers its subject supremely well without overburdening the brain or flagging the interest. (The book's appeal is indicative of the fact that McGee studied both science and literature at Caltech and Yale.) Although every imaginable fact about food is contained in these 884 pages, the style is fluid and concise, and while McGee's prose isn't as pointed or compulsively readable as Root's, it's clean and crisp and absolutely understandable -- ideal for his wide-ranging subject matter. Style here doesn't get in the way of content.
And the content is even more fascinating than one might expect. I was hooked from the opening paragraph about mammals and milk, "food for the beginning eater, a gulpable essence distilled by the mother from her own more variable and challenging diet." This leads, seamlessly, into such topics as the domestication of the goat, the development of Parmesan, the history of ice cream, and the best way to clarify butter, with a quote from Italo Calvino thrown in. By the time you stroll through the remaining 14 chapters on edible plants, cereal doughs and batters, wine, beer, and distilled spirits, the four basic food molecules, and other seemingly prosaic subjects, you've learned about the similarities between kimchi and sauerkraut and the relative hotness of habanero and Tabasco peppers; that freeze-drying was invented by the Incas; that Sicilians were making pasta 200 years before Marco Polo; that it takes 70,000 crocus flowers and 200 hours of labor to produce one pound of saffron; that bees advanced across North America with the white man; and so on, and on.
The text is illustrated and enhanced with easy-to-follow charts, graphs, and pictures, and on every page there are sidebars with insights from Brillat-Savarin, Plutarch, and their culinary brethren along with ancient recipes for ash-roasted eggs, stuffed bonito with pennyroyal, and other delicacies. Sections about modern food production, health risks and benefits, and even a quick primer on atoms, molecules, and the nature of energy add further insight. Taken together, this is a reference book one can read cover to cover with pleasure, interest, and the more than occasional flash of newfound wisdom.