Harold McGee is a James Beard Award-winning author, a leading figure in food science, a lover of good cooking and now a seasoned expert when it comes to all things smells. McGee’s latest book, “Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells,” is an extensive look into the science of smell and the power it has over us daily.
McGee explores the origins of smells, the chemical composition and why smells have such a potent ability to stir up old emotions and memories in us. The book is told in a way that is easy to understand, engaging to readers of all backgrounds but is still insightful in its exploration.
Harold McGee joined Lois Reitzes to talk about his book, the history of smells and why some things smell the way they do.
Harold on how he started writing about smells:
“For 30 or 40 years now, I’ve been writing mostly about food and drink and the science of cooking. To me, the most interesting thing about food and cooking is flavor, the sensory experience that makes it such a pleasure to eat and drink. And so I was intending to write a book about flavor. Flavor consists of taste on the tongue and smell in the nose. And the more I learned about smell, the more fascinated I got. And the more I wondered about not just the smells of food and drink, but the smells of the world around me. And so I ended up taking a detour that lasted 10 years and wrote about the smells of everything in the world that I could think of.”
On how we pick up on smells:
“We detect smells in the air. There has to be a tiny particle of the things around, individual molecules that escape those things and fly through the air where we can breathe them in. And once we breathe them in, they get up into the upper reaches of our nose. We have receptors up there to let us know that we have detected the presence of these molecules. So those receptors will trigger a signal that then goes into our brain, and our brain tries to make sense of the information that it’s getting and then presents us with a perception of the smell of that particular thing.”