Smell is such a powerful and revealing sense because it detects actual little pieces of things in the world. Text and 200 tables cover this topic, in a book by an expert on the chemistry and history of food science and cooking.
You’ll never look at a charcuterie plate the same way after his breakdown of how the discarded skin proteins, foot bacteria and sweat inside your socks essentially recapitulate the transformation of milk and brine into prized aromatic cheeses. Still, fans of Mr. McGee’s culinary writing won’t be disappointed—there are several hundred pages devoted to scrumptious foods, both raw and cooked ... It’s important to note that Mr. McGee isn’t blustering here ... Like an analytical chemist, he catalogs the exact molecules that each food or substance emits, and how they combine like musical notes to produce a scent chord. He offers some general rules for correlating molecular structure with aromatic sensation—that sulfur is generally pungent, and large molecules are more pleasant than small ones. It’s fascinating stuff. I especially enjoyed his discussion explaining how many compounds we think of as floral and fruity actually evolved first in animals ... his enthusiasm is contagious.
This collision of the mundane and the revelatory makes McGee’s book as enjoyable to thumb through as the Fragrantica forums, though his guide is much better researched and far less baroque. It unfolds like a set of smart answers to essentially silly questions about quotidian life. Ever wonder why sweaty armpits stink? And, in the worst cases, why they stink of shallots in particular? McGee reports that the apocrine sweat glands, which kick into high gear during adolescence, do their best to hide the evidence of their own microbiomal bouquet. Sugars and amino acids bind to volatile, potentially rank molecules, thereby preventing the release of any foul smell. But when bacterial interlopers, such as bacillus and staphylococcus, break these bonds and 'liberate' compounds like hydroxymethyl-hexanoic acid, then the full power of B.O. is unleashed: 'rancid, animal, cumin-like.' ... McGee’s tangled web of fragrance families starts to reveal fascinating relationships. By charting the genealogy of the piquant invaders of teen-age underarms, he discovers that they are the 'very same molecules that scent goat and sheep meats, milks, cheeses, and wools.' This is no accident. Traditional cheese-makers cultivated their curds with a 'sweat-like brine' for weeks. Once humans realized they could mimic their own bodily ripeness in their food, they simply couldn’t help themselves. 'The smells of the human body may be socially embarrassing,' McGee writes, 'but for children, and privately for adults, they’re often irresistible.' ... McGee does not make such grand claims; he is more interested in analyzing the deep origin stories of smells than in tracking changeable cultural trends.
... exhaustive ... [McGee] often makes interesting connections between odors that exist in widely different and unexpected places. The reader may wish to dip in and out of this exceedingly thorough book, following their fancy ... Perfect for foodies, those interested in science, and the innately curious. Engagingly written, this would be a wonderful ready reference to have on hand.