Penguin Press, October 2020
Back in 2004, San Francisco-based food writer Harold McGee finished the second edition of a book he first published 20 years earlier, and which has become seminal work in the field of gastronomy. Titled On Food and Cooking, it is an encyclopedic look at the science behind food. Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck (in Bray, Berkshire) says it was the most influential book in his career, which from a chef of his reputation is praise indeed. Some 16 years later, McGee looks to have done it again, with this substantial reference work on smell.
To call it an encyclopedia would be doing it a disservice, because Nose Dive is a work of stunning originality. In an interview with Professor Barry Smith for London Gastronomy Seminars (December 2020), McGee explained the inspiration for this book. “After I wrote On Food and Cooking in 2004, I wanted to catch up with where the food world had gone while I was buried in writing,” he explained. So, he traveled to the UK and met up with Blumenthal, and they ate their way across Europe. “We tried dishes in restaurants whose chefs were really trying to knock our socks off,” he says. But the dish that surprised him the most was at very traditional lunch at London restaurant St John. It was August, which was grouse season; he drank a Rhône wine and ate a whole roasted grouse on a slice of toast. “The first bite left me speechless,” McGee says. “I was completely absorbed. The meatiness was almost too strong, with some bitterness.” He says that he experienced confused emotions, and was momentarily paralyzed. St John chef Fergus Henderson smiled at him and nodded: “Your first grouse.” McGee says that the power of this experience told him he had to focus on flavor, and this led to Nose Dive.
Nose Dive is a big book, and shows a remarkable level of scholarship in its 654 pages, which is reflected in the fact that 33 of those pages constitute a selected list of references, in tiny type. It has no illustrations, but it doesn’t need them.
The core of the book involves a tour of the world’s smells, and the way McGee arranges this subject is novel and ingenious. He groups smells into five segments: (1) simplest smells; (2) animals: dependence, mobility, microbiomes; (3) land plants: independence, immobility, virtuosity; (4) land, waters, afterlife; and (5) chosen smells. Each of these segments is broken down further: for example, chosen smells includes fragrances, cooked foods, and cured and fermented foods.
Perspective is everything. McGee begins with a very readable account of the origin of the universe and planet earth, and then introduces us to some of the simplest smells, linking them with the molecules and other structures that give rise to them. There is quite a bit of chemistry in this book, but it’s gently explained. He presents tables that give the smells, the molecules responsible, and then the sources of the smells in the real world. This is all discussed extensively in the text, which wanders thoughtfully in and around the subject, and is meticulously researched. It would have been so easy to just produce an alphabetized encyclopedia of smells, but McGee has instead done something much more creative.
One of the big strengths of this book is that its focus is the material aspect of smell. Of late, the world of smell has been somewhat dominated by neurobiological approaches—such as Gordon Shepherd’s book Neurogastronomy, which McGee references—which start with the brain. But Nose Dive is firmly rooted in the material: things out there, which we detect. This is a welcome fresh perspective.
His approach is reductionistic, breaking the smells of the material world into their component parts and then listing the molecules responsible. There is some power in this approach, but, as McGee points out in the early part of the book looking at how we smell, things in the world rarely have a smell that is down to just a single odor molecule. Even odorants at sub-threshold levels (that is, at levels we are unable to smell) frequently make a contribution to the perceived scent. Reductionism runs aground due to the fact that we perceive these complex mixed odors as a single entity with a discrete association (that’s coffee, that’s wine and that’s baked bread), and we aren’t very good at identifying individual smells in a mixture. The over-reliance on reductionist analysis is perhaps the only slight weakness of this book.
Wine is one area where smell is central to its appreciation, and is taken very seriously. Small differences in aroma are pored over by professionals and amateurs worldwide. The top wines—those possessing exceptional aromas, and which have been recognized to belong to the peer group of the best “fine wines”—fetch enormous prices. But in this book, wine doesn’t get a great deal of attention. What McGee does say is accurate; there just isn’t very much on the topic This is a little surprising given that it’s an area where there is so much focus on smell, with attempts to dial down to the molecules responsible and how they got there.
This is a brilliant, original book. McGee, like the rest of us, struggles in his attempts to try to describe smell in words: we just aren’t very good at describing what we smell, other than by referencing what other smells it might bring to mind. A verbal, structural description of smells is challenging, given our impoverished language for taste and smell, and also the well-known struggle to name familiar smells: the “tip of the nose” phenomenon. I loved the book, and it led me to want to go out sniffing, to experience these smells McGee was describing. For anyone who enjoys flavor, this book is a compulsory purchase.
This story appears in the print issue of February 2021.
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