McGee talks food of the future

There are no leafy greens in the Caesar salad of the future, which is as much a piece of art as it is an appetizer. A single goldenrod ball of fried anchovy ice cream lords over bean sprouts and foamed Parmesan cheese sit among green puddles of pureed lettuce.

“This,” said Harold McGee GRD ’78, nationally renowned food writer and scientist, “is a strange approach to salads.”

Harold McGee GRD ’78 speaks at the Law School Auditorium in a talk sponsored by the Yale Sustainable Food Project, discussing the development of food science and showing examples of what food might look like in the high-tech future.
Ming-Yee Lin
Harold McGee GRD ’78 speaks at the Law School Auditorium in a talk sponsored by the Yale Sustainable Food Project, discussing the development of food science and showing examples of what food might look like in the high-tech future.

McGee introduced a Law School Auditorium crowd of about 175 to the frontier of food on Thursday afternoon, drawing alternately laughter and pained faces as he displayed the pictures of avant-garde dishes from revolutionary chefs all over the world. Beginning with background on the Enlightenment origins of the science of cooking, McGee walked listeners through the major technological innovations of our day that are helping to push the culinary envelope.

As he stood before the wood-paneled podium in the Law School Auditorium, McGee paused a moment to reflect on his years at Yale, and the amusing way his professional life had come full circle. McGee, who received a doctorate from Yale in English literature, said an idle conversation with a friend in the basement of Kline Biology Tower piqued his interest in what has become a lifelong passion: food science.

“[My friend] asked me, ‘Why do beans give you gas?’” McGee said. “That’s what started my career.”

McGee shifted the conversation from his personal history to the history of food science, revealing parallels in French literature between chemistry and cooking as early as the 17th century. He noted the lag in food science compared with other scientific disciplines, and quoted Hungarian physicist and cooking enthusiast Nicholas Kurti, who said in 1969, “I think it is a sad reflection on our society that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus, we do not know what goes on inside souffles.”

Looking ahead, McGee said chefs using technology adapted from research labs are opening up new possibilities for cold and room-temperature dishes. One such technology, the Anti-Griddle, uses liquid nitrogen to supercool a surface upon which one could place, say, a pancake. Another, the Paco-Jet, processes with blades spinning at 2,000 rpm while cutting through food at a rate of two microns per revolution.

Wanting to give the audience a “taste” of how the future of new-age food looks, McGee rolled through dozens of photos, showing dishes like Barcelonan chef Ferran Adria’s melon caviar. The dish is created by pipetting pureed melon into a hot water bath infused with industrial stabilizers, which harden the drops of melon into bite-size morsels with a chewy shell and juicy center.

Most of the students in attendance were affiliated with the Yale Sustainable Food Project, which sponsored the event. Doug Endrizzi ’10, who will intern on the Yale Farm this summer, put his reasons for coming simply.

“I like food,” he said. “If I’m not eating it, I like to be talking about it.”

But some in the audience questioned whether you could even call the concoctions McGee displayed “food,” saying that the dishes were more like performance art and offered little in the way of nourishment.

Rafael Rosengarten GRD ’10, who is pursuing a doctorate in biology, termed the cuisine on display “a plaything of the rich,” and said he thought its place in the kitchen was akin to that of high art, rather than a means of sustenance.

A reception followed the event, where audience members were relieved to find traditional favorites: crackers and meatballs.

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