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Name: Simon Quellen Field
Location: Los Gatos, California, United States

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Friday, June 09, 2006

On Food and Cooking

Yesterday I had lunch with Harold McGee. He is the author of the classic book on the chemistry of cooking, titled "On Food and Cooking". Lunch was great -- we ate with the head of Google's many cafes, and with the chef, the Google doctor, the Google nutritionist, and some special guests.

The conversation was about food, chemistry, writing, the ten years of writing and research that culminated in the book, the new second edition, book tours, book signings, abalone (the chef had prepared a special plate of delicacies), and teaching. I'm sure I left something out.

Long after lunch, I was walking past a lounge area and heard my name shouted. Harold was sitting on a couch in conversation, having finished his tour of the Google campus, but apparently not yet ready to leave, even though it was approaching 3 in the afternoon.

I joined him, and the talk turned to web sites.

He has a very pretty website, with biographical information and excerpts from the books, but not a huge pile of content. But he has collected a book's worth of miscellaneous gems of knowledge about food and cooking that just didn't fit into any nice categories. Besides, On Food and Cooking was already 896 pages long.

The answer, of course, was to publish this information on the web site, where it will be a magnet for visitors interested in cooking, chemistry, food, and how they all fit together. We discussed some ways to organize and present it, and to get the work into the right form. We talked for over an hour, and I was almost late for my next meeting.

So, keep an eye on his web site -- there is likely to be a flood of fascinating new information coming soon.


Anonymous Trish said...

Sodium PCA is used as a humectant in cosmetics. Upon researching, I found a description for glutamic acid "a nonessential amino acid c5h9no4 occurring widely in plant and animal tissue and proteins, and having monosodium gluamate as a salt." Would that mean that Sodium PCA has monosodium glutamate as a constituent rendering sodium PCA toxic?

June 20, 2006 8:11 PM  
Blogger Simon Quellen Field said...


First off, monosodium glutamate is used as a flavoring all over the world, and is not toxic. Large doses can give people headaches, but the same can be said for salt and pepper. Aspirin and caffeine are more toxic.

Your body contains lots of glutamic acid. It makes up proteins that your body is made of, and that you eat. It is one of the things that cooked meat taste good.

When an acid is said to "have X as a salt", it means that if you add a base (the opposite of an acid) to the acid, you get that salt. So if you add lye to glutamic acid, you get sodium glutamate, just as adding lye to hydrochloric acid produces table salt.

So, if something has glutamic acid in it, that does not mean it has monosodium glutamate in it. In the same way, something having vinegar in it (acetic acid) does not mean it has toxic lead acetate in it.

But let's suppose that the 1% sodium PCA used in your cosmetic does have 1% MSG in it, and you put half a gram of the cosmetic on your face. You will have 50 micrograms of MSG on your face, where it is not easily absorbed. You eat far larger doses when you eat things containing soy protein, soy sauce, beef broth, yeast, whey protein, sodium caseinate, malt extract, hot dogs, and hundreds more. The average American eats almost two pounds of MSG per year.

Some people are sensitive to MSG. That is different than saying it is toxic. It is fine to want to limit your intake of MSG, in the same way you might want to limit your intake of salt or sugar, because of the effects they have on your body. But that doesn't make sugar a toxin.

June 21, 2006 7:39 AM  
Blogger Brad said...

Really like your post "On food and cooking" - Simon.

September 30, 2006 7:12 PM  
Blogger Brad said...

896-page book on Food and Cooking is going to be real gift for the people interested in food and recopies.

October 25, 2006 1:53 AM  

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