James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public | January 7, 2008 Issue - Vol. 86 Issue 1 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 86 Issue 1 | p. 29 | Awards
Issue Date: January 7, 2008

James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public

Recipients are honored for contributions of major significance to chemistry
Department: ACS News
Credit: Courtesy of Harold McGee
Credit: Courtesy of Harold McGee

Sponsored by ACS

"If I have seen far, it's because I've stood on the shoulders of Harold McGee," says Alton Brown, host of Food Network's "Good Eats." Praise for McGee's "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen" from such well-known chefs as Jacques Pepin, Thomas Keller, and Mario Batali is a testament to the book's importance since it was first published in 1984.

"Hal is respected for his ability to clearly articulate topics that can be difficult for the nonscientist to understand," says Sara J. Risch of Michigan State University.

McGee was fascinated by chemistry and physics while growing up. He entered California Institute of Technology planning to study astronomy yet graduated with a B.S. with honors in English in 1973. In 1978, he earned a Ph.D. in English literature from Yale University, where he wrote a thesis entitled "Keats and the Progress of Taste."

McGee's transition into food science began one evening at dinner, when a friend wondered why beans were a problematic food to digest. Later, during a trip to the library, McGee saw shelves of food science publications, such as Cereal Chemistry and the Journal of Food Science. He leafed through a few volumes and found clues to answers to other questions he had: Why do eggs solidify when they're cooked? Why does fruit turn brown when it's cut? He thought the information might make an interesting book for people who were interested in food. Immersing himself in food science and history, he published the encyclopedic "On Food and Cooking," which quickly became the bible for chefs and food aficionados around the world.

"America was just awakening to the diversity and excellence of the world's foods," Risch says, "and the book helped satisfy a growing hunger for information about ingredients and techniques."

In 1990, McGee published "The Curious Cook: More Kitchen Science and Lore." In this book, he scientifically examines several foods and cooking methods, as well as the relationship between food and good health.

For the 20th anniversary of "On Food and Cooking," McGee prepared a fully revised and updated edition. He expanded the text by two-thirds to cover more topics in-depth, rewriting the book almost completely. The book was reprinted five times in the six months after publication. It was recognized as the best food reference book of 2004 by the International Association of Culinary Professionals and by the James Beard Foundation in 2005.

McGee has been honored by numerous organizations. For example, he was named food writer of the year by Bon Appétit magazine in 2005, and the Research Chefs Association designated him a Pioneer in Culinology in 2000. He is a sought-after speaker and has participated in programs like ACS's "Cooks with Chemistry" program for food editors. He is also a contributor to various publications such as Nature, Food & Wine, and Fine Cooking. He now writes a monthly column on the science of food and cooking for the New York Times.

"McGee has an engaging, low-key way of presenting chemistry in food preparation," says Roald Hoffman of Cornell University. "In doing so, he has constructed a tasty bridge between our science and the general public. He was the pioneer, and he remains the best."

McGee will present the award address before the Division of Agricultural & Food Chemistry.

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