Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them -- and so do writers. All Things Considered talks with writers about their favorite buttonhole books. And the series continues all summer long on NPR.org.
There are now two editions of Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: the massive, delightfully unmanageable 684-page tome that appeared in 1984, and the larger, even more unmanageable, utterly idiosyncratic 884-page version that appeared last year. A third edition is in the works, one certain to break the 1,000-page barrier. After all, why stop now? These things, these 'editions,' look like books -- they have pages, are bound, encased in hard covers, and momentarily seem like an example of a familiar category, a reference 'tool,' say, or an encyclopedia of some kind, an A to Z of everything you wanted to know about dinner -- but you shouldn’t be fooled. These are not books in any conventional sense. The trappings -- the dust jacket, the author photo -- are a pretense to set the author loose inside, where you’ll find displays of a brilliant, unconventional mind unable to stop itself.
I’d discovered "my McGee" when, researching an article about Mario Batali, the New York chef and Food Network personality, I ended up working in the kitchen of Babbo, one of Mario's restaurants. I found two kinds of people there: those who had gone to culinary college, and the few who had not -- including Mario himself. What you needed to be a cook, he'd insist, was not schooling but working -- in a proper top-flight kitchen -- provided that when you got home, you read your McGee.
In McGee, I found a kindred spirit. My first job was an editor of literary magazine. When I'd started working at Babbo, I edited fiction at The New Yorker. In the kitchen, I was a word guy, but had (I'd like to believe) the enthusiasm of someone who was discovering nonverbal skills for the first time. McGee had also been a word guy -- his Ph.D. was in Renaissance studies -- with much of the same amateur's enthusiasm. His first job was at MIT, a science college. It was here, eating suppers he'd made for friends, that he realized how little most of us know about our food. "How does yeast work?" his science friends asked. "What is gluten? Who made the first bread? Why do we cook meat? Is chocolate erotic?"
McGee’s first so-called edition is a miscellany of essays answering obvious, but rarely asked questions of this kind. Who invented gravy? What is the history of alcohol? What is a protein? The book has something of an order -- the essay-answers fall into food groups (like "Dairy Products" or "Eggs" or "Seeds.") The order, I now appreciate, is an illusory device used to hold back -- tethered like a horse -- the mind of an obsessive that's about to bolt. In the second edition, it bolts. This is a book written by a man who wants to explain, well, everything.
Today, McGee is the most important person alive writing about food. Why? (I can hear him asking the question.) Because he understands that food is about so much more than food: that it's also about history and chemistry and culture and the stuff that makes us human. I read him constantly, one utterly surprising page at a time, and in no order whatsoever.
NPR's Ellen Silva produced and edited this series.