First, there was Elvis. The Beatles followed, and after that, countless longhaired guitar-strumming rockers tasted the praises of stardom. Groupies continue to group and grope, while the bands play on. At the same time, hiding in the library stacks or peaking though microscopes, a quieter type celebrity has also existed. They are less brazen, but equally as cherished by their fans. There is less notoriety with the masses, but a similar fanaticism among niche markets of enthusiastic and well-intended nerds.
Yes. Nerds. Wonderful, covalent bond loving, graduated cylinder reading, fact-spouting, bona fide nerds.
In the food world, there is Harold McGee. Unique to McGee, his fans might be found in either the kitchen or the science lab. No matter their backdrop, both can be found discussing the difference between gelation and gelatinization, parleying about the history and development of puff pastry or delving into the intricacies of an egg. Harold McGee is the author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, and is essentially the authority of all things “Food Science.” Basically, if you’re a fan of Bill Nye and like making chocolate chip cookies, McGee is your guy. At culinary school the book could be found at most students’ bedside tables.
This past week, I had the opportunity to attend the Harvard class, “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter” and see the students’ final science fair. I’d received an invitation to the event through a teaching assistant/MIT graduate student/friend whom I’ve been enthusiastically collaborating with to develop the quintessential cocktail garnish involving gelatin (my favorite of the cooking ingredients) and small boats.
Thrilled at the opportunity to attend the event, I perused the students’ projects with gleeful fascination. There were hot marshmallows, experiments suspending solids within spherified liquids, tests on developing unmeltable chocolate, and the list goes on. Then, feeling already honored to simply be attending the event, I saw Harold McGee.
Images flashed of the girls you see in footage of the 1960’s Beatle’s concerts, grabbing their hair. I remained composed (realizing that my nerd levels were surpassing the readable magnitudes on the Richter scale).
I suppose that my elation was based on the fact that McGee’s presence made the experience complete. He was the tree-topper to the event. The science fair showcased curiosity and this is what Harold McGee represents.
Although, I meekly introduced myself, what I really should have said is, “thank you.” Thanks Harold McGee for allowing us to understand our food, rather than blindly following recipes without the background of why things work or where they come from. And in answering our curiosities and questions, you help us become better cooks. With Harold McGee, the kitchen becomes and edible laboratory just waiting to explored.