Back

The Flavor Fanatic

Photo by Elli Sekine

Harold McGee (BS ’73) began asking himself these questions in the 1970s as an undergraduate at Caltech while taking part in what Blacker House called its “Posh Dinner Parties.”

“We would get dressed up in jacket and tie and would commandeer the kitchens at the Athenaeum and wheel things back in forth through the steam tunnels,” he recalls. “We would come up with menus and wines and have, for that age, really nice meals.”

These friendly group discussions around the dinner table, critiquing the food in front of them, planted a seed of interest for McGee. And over the next five decades, his interest blossomed into an impassioned exploration of the science of food, leading to his most recent book, Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World's Smells (Penguin-Random House, paperback, 2022)
 
In the book, 2010 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient McGee takes readers on a sensory adventure, sniffing through the matter we breathe in – the good and the not so good – to form a comprehensive understanding of the “flavor” of the world around us. And although the book focuses on a more universal understanding of smell, McGee was originally inspired by his love for food. “When I was in school, we didn’t really know that much about what it is in food and drink that stimulates our senses, or how it is that our senses process that information,” McGee remembers.
 
“Smell is a sense that allows us to evaluate our local environment but also what’s in our mouths and going into our digestive system. That crossover really fascinated me and that ended up taking me down the path,” he continues.
 
His first book, On Food and Cooking, became a kitchen and classroom classic after its debut in 1984, and was dubbed a “minor masterpiece” by Time magazine for building a revolutionary bridge between the technical science of food and the joyful habits of cooking.
 
McGee intended to follow up the second 2004 edition of On Food and Cooking with a similarly food-focused guide to flavor, but as he began his research, he became intrigued with how food aromas echo smells in the rest of the world.
 
“I thought I was going to write about food and drink” he says. “I already knew them pretty well. But then to learn about perfume, and astrochemistry, and confined animal feeding operations… I didn’t know anything about that stuff, so I had to really learn from the ground up in a bunch of fields that were new to me, which was both the challenge but also the fun.”
 
Nose Dive offers readers a guide to the smells of the universe, beginning with the Big Bang, and reveals one of McGee’s personal rules to remember: from food to environment, always stop and enjoy the simple scents of everyday.
 
“Each place has its own flavor, and the flavor of the world isn’t restricted to food. It’s all around you all the time,” he says, “as you’re walking down the street and you get a whiff of a tree, or somebody cooking, or the exhaust from a clothes dryer. There’s a lot going on around us all the time, and it can be fun to pay attention to it every once in a while and realize what it’s coming from.”

Order your copy of Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World's Smells today.

Back

The Flavor Fanatic

Photo by Elli Sekine
Back

The Flavor Fanatic

Photo by Elli Sekine
Back

The Flavor Fanatic

“What is it about food that makes it so appealing? We need to eat, we need to fuel ourselves, but why is it delicious?”

Photo by Elli Sekine

Harold McGee (BS ’73) began asking himself these questions in the 1970s as an undergraduate at Caltech while taking part in what Blacker House called its “Posh Dinner Parties.”

“We would get dressed up in jacket and tie and would commandeer the kitchens at the Athenaeum and wheel things back in forth through the steam tunnels,” he recalls. “We would come up with menus and wines and have, for that age, really nice meals.”

These friendly group discussions around the dinner table, critiquing the food in front of them, planted a seed of interest for McGee. And over the next five decades, his interest blossomed into an impassioned exploration of the science of food, leading to his most recent book, Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World's Smells (Penguin-Random House, paperback, 2022)
 
In the book, 2010 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient McGee takes readers on a sensory adventure, sniffing through the matter we breathe in – the good and the not so good – to form a comprehensive understanding of the “flavor” of the world around us. And although the book focuses on a more universal understanding of smell, McGee was originally inspired by his love for food. “When I was in school, we didn’t really know that much about what it is in food and drink that stimulates our senses, or how it is that our senses process that information,” McGee remembers.
 
“Smell is a sense that allows us to evaluate our local environment but also what’s in our mouths and going into our digestive system. That crossover really fascinated me and that ended up taking me down the path,” he continues.
 
His first book, On Food and Cooking, became a kitchen and classroom classic after its debut in 1984, and was dubbed a “minor masterpiece” by Time magazine for building a revolutionary bridge between the technical science of food and the joyful habits of cooking.
 
McGee intended to follow up the second 2004 edition of On Food and Cooking with a similarly food-focused guide to flavor, but as he began his research, he became intrigued with how food aromas echo smells in the rest of the world.
 
“I thought I was going to write about food and drink” he says. “I already knew them pretty well. But then to learn about perfume, and astrochemistry, and confined animal feeding operations… I didn’t know anything about that stuff, so I had to really learn from the ground up in a bunch of fields that were new to me, which was both the challenge but also the fun.”
 
Nose Dive offers readers a guide to the smells of the universe, beginning with the Big Bang, and reveals one of McGee’s personal rules to remember: from food to environment, always stop and enjoy the simple scents of everyday.
 
“Each place has its own flavor, and the flavor of the world isn’t restricted to food. It’s all around you all the time,” he says, “as you’re walking down the street and you get a whiff of a tree, or somebody cooking, or the exhaust from a clothes dryer. There’s a lot going on around us all the time, and it can be fun to pay attention to it every once in a while and realize what it’s coming from.”

Order your copy of Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World's Smells today.

—  

—  

—  

—  

—  

The Hunt for Extreme Life

Jeffrey Marlow searches the ends of the earth for the limits of life.

Taming the System

How Riot Games’ Naomi McArthur keeps the peace in online gaming—and how those lessons can extend to real life

More posts like this

Leveling Up the Syllabus

Leveling Up the Syllabus

Richard Bowman, PhD (BS '02) Applies his Caltech-honed Problem-Solving Skills at the Intersection of Education and Technology

Ripple Effect

Ripple Effect

How a revolutionary solar-powered water pump is transforming the lives of small-plot farmers in India How a revolutionary solar-powered water pump is transforming the lives of small-plot farmers in India

My Own Devices

My Own Devices

Google privacy engineer Jeremy Gillula, PhD (BS ’06) on how protecting personal data became a priority—and what will shape the future of digital freedom