fb-pixel Skip to main content

Harold McGee discusses poetry, cookbooks, and delicious scents

Harold James McGee is an American author who writes about the chemistry and history of food science and cooking.
Harold James McGee is an American author who writes about the chemistry and history of food science and cooking.Elli Sekine

Harold McGee, famed for his definitive book, “On Food and Cooking,” takes on all things olfactory in his newest, “Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells.” In this wide-ranging survey, McGee explains the chemistry of odors from cut grass to stinky feet to freshly baked bread. The James Beard award-winning author has been named a food writer of the year by Bon Appetit and listed in the Time 100, an annual list of the world’s most influential people. He lives in San Francisco.

BOOKS: What are you reading?

MCGEE: Bill Buford’s “Dirt,” which I’m enjoying a lot. I’m a fan of his. I really enjoyed “Heat” and before that “Among the Thugs.” I’ve also got Helen MacDonald’s essay collection “Vesper Flights” on the way from a bookstore in D.C.


BOOKS: Do you have favorite authors for books about food?

MCGEE: I have a couple of favorite classics that most people don’t know about. I always recommend “Honey From a Weed,” by Patience Gray, an English woman who lived all over the Mediterranean, generally in very poor communities. She wrote about the cooking in those places. Then this wonderful, short book from the 1930s, “French Cooking in Ten Minutes,” by Edouard de Pomiane. He was a scientist who would go home for lunch every day and have an hour to prepare and eat a meal. He advises starting your water boiling before you hang up your hat.

BOOKS: How would you describe yourself as a reader?

MCGEE: Lapsed. My new book was seven years overdue, which meant that for the last five to six years I haven’t been doing much reading. Now that my book is out, I’m beginning to pull things down from my shelves.

BOOKS: What have you pulled down?


MCGEE: My dissertation was on John Keats, so my daughter gave me this wonderful book called “The Keats Brothers,” by Denise Gigante, which is a dual bio of Keats and his brother George, who ended up in Louisville, Ky., of all places. I’m also reading Wordsworth, “Lyrical Ballads” and “The Prelude.” My book required me to spend my day reading technical papers in scientific journals. Boy, is it nice to read prose and poetry that has been crafted.

BOOKS: What did you read for your book that you would recommend?

MCGEE: My favorite is “Meaningful Scents Around the World,” by Roman Kaiser, a chemist who can really write. It’s a beautiful book with beautiful photographs. It’s a nose-opening book about smells in the world.

BOOKS: How many books do you have?

MCGEE: A lot. They are totally disorganized. I’ve spent some time these past few months scanning them and rediscovering books I’d forgotten I had. I have found three or four copies of some books. One of my resolutions is to find out what I have by the end of 2020. I will turn 70 next year, and I’d like to know which books I want to get to.

BOOKS: How many cookbooks do you have?

MCGEE: I have two large bookcases in the dining room full of them, and I have a bookcase full of books by chefs like Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria in another room.

BOOKS: Do you still cook from your cookbooks?


MCGEE: I do because I have cookbooks I know well. I made a peach pie over the weekend from my go-to for pies, Rose Levy Beranbaum’s “The Pie and Pastry Bible.” I also use cookbooks to try out new things. I have a couple of books out for that. One is “Roti,” by Nandita Godbole, which is about Indian flatbreads. Then there is this wonderfully crazy book, “Noodle Soup,” by Ken Albala. He’s a historian and a wonderfully experimental home cook. He goes over the history of all the cultures that have developed ways of making noodle soups and then he dives in. His recipes are wonderfully wacky, but edible wacky.

BOOKS: Do you keep your cookbooks clean?

MCGEE: I do not. I now have to get closer to the page to read the instructions clearly. Some of the syrup from the peach pie ended up on the pastry bible this weekend.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane.” She can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com.