I Love Harold McGee


We all know there needs to be more science in garden writing. 

Harold McGee, the author of the amazing On Food and Cooking: The Science and
Lore of the Kitchen
, is the man who brought science to food writing. 

That is reason enough to read him.  But he is also a superbly entertaining writer.  Check out his piece today in The NY Times about cilantro, where you will not only learn that Julia Child hated cilantro and arugula (!) but why.

The Julia Child hagiography has got to stop.  She was another superb writer…but her ideas about food had zero to do with freshness and the garden.  I’ll take Alice Waters over her for inspiration any day.


  1. Interesting article by McGee but comparing Childs unfavourably to Waters is a little like comparing the Wright Brothers’ plane to the latest Boeing liner isn’t it?

  2. I second your McGee shout-out and I also love the Chez Panisse cookbooks (esp Vegetables).

    I think Julia C was a product of her time–there was not a lot of freshness to work with for most non-gardeners at that time, at least judging from my Midwestern parents’ tastes in food.

    For actually getting people into the kitchen, and building enough confidence to confront an unfamiliar vegetable, it’s hard to beat Mark Bittman.

  3. Tai haku–only ten years separates the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and the founding of Chez Panisse.

    You’re right–they are vastly different in terms of their sophistication. But that is all to Alice Waters’ credit.

  4. Neat! Count me among the one-time cilantro haters. I’m learning to … well, not love it, but tolerate it at least. I love the explanation of why cilantro is such a polarizing herb.

    As to Julia, I certainly don’t think her word is inviolable, and I consider her recipes “occasion” cooking, but I will always, always love her for teaching me how to properly saute mushrooms. Yum.

  5. I love cilantro and my friend Adam loathes it (says it tastes of soap) and I’m glad to have a little explanation as to why that is. Now if only someone would properly explain to me why lilies smell gorgeous to most people but to me they smell of garbage.

  6. As I found out when writing “A Tale of Two Parsleys” (www.sky-bolt.com/parsleys.htm), my husband and I have different taste sensations when it comes to parsley and cilantro, which are in the same family. He dislikes cilantro and has a distinct preference for curly parsley over flat-leafed varieties, while I like cilantro and cannot taste any difference between the two parsleys.
    Most of a very successful cilantro crop ended up in the compost, but the flat-leafed parsley ended up in a pesto, but don’t tell my husband.

  7. Thank you for turning me onto this great article. It will be very interesting for my husband to read as he is one of the small minority of outspoken cilantro haters. We love Harold McGee!!

  8. I despise cilantro (although I like its spicy seed, cardamom), but I love arugula!

    @ Ginny — I’m so there with your husband on the flat-leaf vs. curly-leaf parsley thing.

    Great article!

  9. Ginny, I have huge opinions on parsley also!!! Though flat-leaf is more fashionable, I find the flavor of homegrown curly leaf really superior!

    Cilantro, I just love.

  10. Hey, there’s no need to dis Julia for her scorn for cilantro and arugula. If you don’t like ’em, you don’t like ’em, and that’s no basis for putting one pioneering cook down for another. Interesting article, though my response is, why would I make an effort to like either one, when not liking them is just fine. Soapy (cilantro) or skunky (arugula) — I don’t miss ’em.

    and note to Liisa — cardamom and cilantro are different plants entirely. Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum is the usual kind) is a member of the Ginger family. Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) belongs with the rest of the huge Umbelliferae/Apiacea clan

  11. But Li’l Ned, it does say something about her palate that she does not like such shockingly fresh and green tastes.

    She’s just not my kind of cook.

  12. “she’s just not my kind of cook” ..what an unbelievably arrogant statement about the woman who almost singlehandedly brought “good food” to the United States. Before Julia Child, there were jello salads and bottled mayonnaise and film-wrapped packages of apples without identification, and the only cheeses were Velveeta, Kraft and cheddar. People cooked green beans to various shades of greyness, brussels sprouts too, no-one had ever heard of bechamel or veloute sauce (and if they are “occasion cooking”, then I commit that at least twice a week). If you don’t want to bother with the basics of good cooking, that’s your choice but at least give Julia Child the credit for what she actually did — which was, to tell Americans that there was another way to cook, that there were ways to make food that was both delicious and healthful, and that slabs of red meat on the grill were not the only way to please your guests or your family. And, damnit, she wasn’t pioneering except in this country — in France and Belgium she was right in the mainstream of good classic food — not haute cuisine (occasion cooking, if you wish), but what people do every day.

    I would not want to take anything away from Alice Waters, who is a gifted and generous chef. But I suspect that she too would give credit to Julia for her contributions rather than saying “she’s not my kind of cook”.

  13. Rosella, I called Julia Child a superb writer, which she is. And I spent much of my youth attempting to cook out of Mastering The Art of French Cooking. Entirely enraging. You don’t need to cook every vegetable separately to make a delicious coq au vin. Ask any Frenchperson.

    But I’m a gardener. It’s all about freshness for me. And for Julia, it was about technique. Not my kind of cook.

  14. “But Li’l Ned, it does say something about her palate that she does not like such shockingly fresh and green tastes.”

    You can add cilantro hater Lidia Bastianich to your list of the ‘palate challenged’. Shocking indeed.

    You know, it really says nothing about her palate if you accept the premise of the NYT article that genetics or evolutionary characteristics are somehow responsible for the intense dislike of cilantro that some people are cursed with.

    “You don’t need to cook every vegetable separately to make a delicious coq au vin. Ask any Frenchperson.”

    No, but it will be better if you do. Ask Thomas Keller.

    Julia and Alice? One is butter and cream, the other, fresh tomatoes and baby greens. One is foundational, the other evolutionary. I grew up with Julia, but now I live with Alice. Both should be admired for their contributions.

  15. There are no many inferior cookbook writers and food writers. So many. Neither Alice Waters or Julia Chjild are among them. We should thank god we had/have both of them in an age of … well, just watch the Food Network.

    I just know that whatever I make with a JC recipe turns out great.

  16. But Harold McGee’s point is that you can LEARN not to dislike cilantro! You can learn to break those associations with soap.

    You just have to be interested in the many great cuisines that use it.

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