The Oxford Companion to Food
by Alan Davidson

1999. 892 pages, no recipes.


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"I like to think that I have a few things in common with the great French writer Alexandre Dumas the elder. One is the hope which he expressed that, besides deserving attention of 'men of serious character', his encyclopedic Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine would prove suitable to be read 'even by women of a much lighter disposition' and that fingers of these women would not grow weary in turning this pages. I go along with that idea very strongly, all the more so because I have always assumed (quite why, I know not) that when I write it is for a female audience."



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The Oxford Companion to Food is a big book. I mean BIG. Big in volume: 892 pages. Big in scope: this culinary encyclopedia begins with "A" - as in aardvark, additives, and Aztec food - and ends with "Z" as in zakuski (Russian for "light snack") and the inevitable last word of any culinary alphabet: zucchini.^ No one could accuse the author Alan Davidson of having Attention Deficit Disorder. He spent 23 years - or, by his figuring, "7,250 days" -writing his opus. Given the breadth of the subject matter, I'm surprised it didn't take him twice that long. (I was glad to see he isn't completely superhuman; he mentions fifty other contributors helping him along the way.)


The book covers all types of foods (yes, aardvark is considered food fit for human consumption in some places in the world) , culinary history (including etymology of dishes), foodways of different countries and ethnicities, some of the scientific underpinning of various cooking techniques. Since the organizing principle is the alphabet, you'll find some pretty unlikely bedfellows. For example, between pages 624 to 626, he gives us the rundown on " Porridge", "portable soup" (a 19th century precursor to the bouillon cube), "Port Salut", "Portugal", and "posh- te" (this last item is an obscure Mexican fruit).


Happily for us readers, Davidson does not write in the standard anonymous "dictionary" style. He has a dry, literate English wit (think Noel Coward in the kitchen rather than in the drawing room). For the entry "USA", he laments that a short essay is wholly inadequate to deal with American food and cooking. What is needed, he writes, " is a broad canvas, of the size which, say, Tintoretto liked to use and a fistful of broad brushes are suitable equipment, whereas a miniaturist's panel the size of a postage stamp is not." And like most erudite guys, he's a bit of a show off, quietly, but pointedly, calling attention to the fact that his knowledge extends beyond his field of expertise. (What!? You don't know who Tintoretto is? Did you sleep through your European Art History class in college?)


Some subjects Davidson will delve into in greater depth. You want to find out how olives are turned into oil? or how cheese is made? or the varieties of Japanese noodles, Chinese noodles, and Indonesian noodles? Davidson has the answers. Chocolate lovers will appreciate his six densely-packed pages on the subject including its history, manufacture, and varieties. My guess is that Davidson has a special fondness for apples as he manages to find enough to say about them to fill nearly six pages.


I would hardly presume to claim I know even one gazillionth of what Davidson does. But I do have that amateur's itch to find even one tiny fissure in an expert's knowledge. So I wracked my brain to try to come up with the few obscure bits of knowledge he might have missed. Did he have za'atar (a Middle East spice mixture)? Yes. Did he have Spam? Yes. Did he cover umami? Ha! I got him on that one! (Umami, originally a Japanese concept,is known as the "fifth taste".) Because Davidson lives in the UK, I'll let him off the hook for not mentioning that great American confection, Peeps.


The Oxford Companion to Food makes perfect reading when you're curled up in a comfy chair on a rainy afternoon; those were the conditions in which I first perused it. It encourages a meandering course, wandering from one randomly chosen page to another, stopping to read when an entry catches your eye. (Who could resist reading the definition of "Son of a Bitch Stew"?)


Before you go to your next dinner party, especially if you'll be among a foodie crowd, you might want to mine The Oxford Companion of Food for conversational tidbits to casually toss out during the evening. The pasta course would be a perfect segue for you to muse about the curious durability of the myth that Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from the Orient, when, in actuality, there are written references which show pasta was already in Italy long before Sr. Polo was even born. When dinner table talk turns to tales of teen-ager offspring who have gone from Big Mac lovers to moralizing vegetarians, you might mention that even though thevegetarian phenomenon dates back to ancient Greece, the term "vegetarian" only came into use in the mid-1800's when the Vegetarian Society was formed in England. A word of warning: You probably should limit yourself to dispensing no more than two arcane culinary facts per evening; otherwise you run the risk of being seen as an insufferable intellectual show off who will never be asked to any more dinner parties and you will be stuck at home delivering your culinary bon mots to your cat.