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The Oxford Companion to Food

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The Oxford Companion to Food (Canada, UK)
By Alan Davidson
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication Date: Dec. 1999
ISBN: 0192115790

This is the hardest book I’ve had to review in a long, long time. It is too large and too full of information to be read through; it is clearly a reference book. Yet it is a book that wants you to explore — while you can’t read it from cover to cover, it is hard to put down, and keeps sending you off (by means of devious cross references) on search after search for more fascinating information. There is a three-page feature on coconuts, yet one short paragraph on candy. It covers 2,650 topics in just under 900 pages. It is expensive. It is monumental.

I love the idea of this book. It is the execution that I am struggling with a little bit.

The Oxford Companion to Food includes the work of more than 50 food experts from around the world. But the conception and 80 percent of the text belongs to Alan Davidson, one of the world’s foremost authorities on seafood. Mr. Davidson began the book in the late 1970s and just over 20 years later, in 1999, saw it published.

In reducing the world of food to one volume, however large, the task comes down to a question of editing, of selecting the most meaningful foods and cooking subjects and presenting them clearly, concisely, and with balance. Some of Mr. Davidson’s choices might not have been be my own. (As an Englishman, he was not necessarily editing for a North American audience.) Some of the entries in the book may be meaningful historically, but would have to be described as quirky.

There are references to many of the world’s nations — including quite obscure ones — describing their chief foods and national dishes. There are also 41 lengthy features exploring such staples as flour, sugar, potatoes, olives and cheese, but also more obscure topics such as dates, Asian dumplings, European sausages, and sherbet!

The publisher’s own marketing materials highlight the quirkiness of the book, featuring one of the sections the publicist apparently found particularly interesting: “Parrots and Cockatoos.” (Apparently these birds were eaten in New Guinea, Australia, and New Zealand at one time or another, and apparently weren’t very good….)

While the entries in the book are all alphabetical (and therefore reasonably easy to find), it is interesting to see how the book was put together conceptually. It considers foods that come from plants and their primary products; foods that come from creatures and their primary products; prepared foods, including baked goods, beverages, confections, pastas, sweet & savory dishes, and sauces; and “everything else,” including cookbooks, cooking terms & techniques, cultural, religious & dietary considerations, national & regional cuisines, and scientific topics.

The book includes no recipes, no references to current food trends that may be news today and forgotten tomorrow, no references to living authors, and, as Davidson is a teetotaler, virtually no references to alcohol (and relatively few references to beverages, in general).

Davidson, a former British diplomat and ambassador to Laos, is the author or editor of a number of books on food and cooking, one spy novel, and is co-founder of the annual Oxford Food Symposium. He says he sought to make the book reflect the cuisine of the whole world, but is a bit dismayed that the “English-speaking western world” is inevitably over represented.

Navigating the book can be challenging, and the British English will also occasionally trip up the North American reader. If you’re trying to find out what blackstrap molasses is, you might be clever enough to know that molasses is treacle, but the only references to blackstrap molasses in the book are in the description for sugar and not treacle (and it took me weeks to figure that out). Similarly, a lengthy search for pita bread finally led me to pitta bread — silly what hurdles the addition of one letter can cause.

The International Association of Culinary Professionals named The Oxford Companion to Food the best food reference book in its 2000 Cookbook Awards, and also recognized it for “distinguished scholarship in the quality of its research and presentation.”

My struggle with the book is clearly an unjust one — surely it is not possible to create a universal reference on food, that treats every legitimate subject, gives each one exactly the weight it deserves, and satisfies the intellectual or professional curiosity of at least every English speaker in the world. Alas! That is what I expected.

Failing to be all things to all people, The Oxford Companion to Food is a wonderful resource — interesting, informative, clever, seductive, and satisfying.

The Oxford Companion to Food (Canada, UK)


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