MELISSA BLOCK, host:
We're going to continue now with our summer series You Must Read This. Author Bill Buford has the distinction of being both a writer and the subject of a You Must Read This essay. His recent book, Heat, was chosen as a selection last month.
Today, Bill Buford gives us his own choice, a book he says he sometimes references 10 times a day.
BILL BUFORD reporting:
There are now two editions of Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, the massive, delightfully unmanageable 684-page tome that appeared 22 years ago, and the larger, even more unmanageable, utterly idiosyncratic 884-page version that appeared in 2005.
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 - 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.
Don'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 were very educated - 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 real live, professional kitchen, provided that when you got home, you read your McGee.
In my McGee, I found a kindred spirit. You see, when I'd started working at Babbo, I was an editor. I did the fiction at The New Yorker. And in the kitchen, therefore, I was a word guy, but with, I'd like to believe, the enthusiasm of someone who's 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. And it was here 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? Are oysters? Is food?
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. But 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 writing about food alive. 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.
BLOCK: Bill Buford is the author of Heat. For more of our summer reading series, You Must Read This, go to NPR.org.
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