Food columnist discusses intersection of food and science

Melon caviar, molten chocolate cake and hot-cold tea gel — these were all topics discussed by food columnist and author Harold McGee GRD ’73 as part of his Tuesday talk on the intersection of food and science.

In a lecture hall of roughly 100 people, Harold McGee spoke about the relationship between science and food. The talk was part of the Yale Sustainable Food Project’s “Chewing the Fat” speaker series, and it focused on the impact that scientific discoveries have had on cooking practices and the fine-tuning of recipes.

After initially struggling to find work in academia, McGee — who received his doctorate in English literature — accidentally stumbled on the discipline he refers to as “kitchen science.” This field, which is less technical than food science, takes a close look at the precise, scientific nature of cooking. Branching off from the food-science literature of the last few centuries, McGee’s research focuses more on how practices in the kitchen have evolved from scientific discoveries.

“All I did was take the existing food science literature and translate it into English,” McGee said.

McGee pointed out that the exchange between chefs and scientists goes back hundreds of years. He discussed how scientists over the last 400 years have conducted experiments on pressure and temperature, leading to innovations in the realm of cooking. For instance, McGee referenced Count Rumford, a physicist who created a low-temperature cooking machine that eventually gave rise to the modern oven.

McGee also described the importance of science in food hygiene and health, mentioning food scientist Samuel Prescott, who worked together with the William Underwood canned food company in the late 19th century to discover that heat-resistant bacteria can survive the processing of food. He also touched on the evolution of cooking styles from the popular precision of French “haute cuisine” to the more experimental “nouvelle cuisine” of the late 1900s, the latter of which uses science to create inventive methods of cooking.

Ferran Adrià is one example McGee cited of a modern chef who physically manipulates his dishes in order to surprise restaurant-goers with unexpected flavors. For instance, Adrià experimented with a transparent shelling for ravioli, made with agar and gelatin. And now, McGee said, scientists have contributed even more discoveries that allow cooks to prepare food precisely — such as manipulating the exact temperature of a dish to obtain a specific, desired texture.

“Barriers have been broken down, and lots of disciplines are contributing to what food can be in 10 years,” McGee said. “The artificial barrier between [what food scientists] study as a discipline and what we like to eat has been permeated.”

McGee ended his talk by linking science to the popularization of organic foods, describing how science provides cooks with an important element of control over their food. He spoke about the interdisciplinary nature of food science, as it combines elements of science, sustainability and tradition.

Mark Bomford, director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, told the News that he agrees with McGee’s views about the merging of food and science disciplines. Bomford described McGee —who is part of the advisory board of the Yale Sustainable Food Project — as “an inspiring and groundbreaking figure” in his field.

Bomford added that McGee’s talk fits nicely with the mission of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, which “has always been interested in all the inquiry between food and agriculture.” The use of science in thinking about food is important because it forces people to think about what goes into making their food.

“To take critical inquiry [about the scientific method as it applies to food] is the kind of mindset we need,” Bomford said.

The next event on the Yale Sustainable Food Project’s “Chewing the Fat” calendar is a Yale food systems symposium, which will take place on Oct. 18 and 19.

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