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The Oxford Companion to Food, second edition (December 1, 2006)

book review
by Dean Tudor

The Oxford Companion to Food, second edition (Oxford University
Press, 2006, 907 pages, ISBN 0-19-280681-5, $75 hardbound) has been edited and prepared by Alan Davidson, food historian (Petit Propos Culinaires), Oxford Food Symposia, fish and seafood writer nonpareil. He died in 2003, and responsibility for revisions went to Tom Jaine, a freelance writer specializing in food history.

In 1976, Alan Davidson got a contract to produce this book for both Oxford (hardback) and Penguin (paperback). Twenty years later it was ready, and it was worth the wait... It has already won more than a half dozen major awards in food reference categories (the IACP, Versailles, James Beard, Andre Simon, Glenfiddich, et al). The paperback version, published a few years later, updated and corrected a few items and omissions.

Contributors to the project included Harold McGee, Ray Sokolov, John Ayto, Sri Owen, and lots of quotes from John Mariani. But Davidson wrote a lot of it himself over the past 20 years, variously estimated at 80%.

This is a food reference book, so there are no recipes (but sometimes procedures are indicated). It covers the whole world with 3,000 cogent entries, with equal emphasis about all continents and regions. Featured are aquatic plant foods (dulse, kelp, nori), cereals, fruits, fungi, nuts, condiments, vegetables, birds, dairy, fish, seafood, baked goods, beverages, candy, sauces, cookbook authors, culinary terms, food culture (e.g., afternoon tea, dietary laws, markets, picnic, yin-yang – even "white trash cooking"), and science (e.g., additives, amino acids, cholesterol, digestion, fibre, oxalic acid). National and regional cuisines have separate, overview entries – there are 120 of these!

The publisher claims hundreds of updates with 72 new entries (food in film, globalization, neuroanatomy, the Silk Road, confetti, doggy bags, myrrh, potluck). Aardvark to zuppa inglese: headwords are alphabetically arranged, with internal cross references for browsing. There are subject indexes and indexes of synonyms.

Audience and level of use: The hardbound has three columns per page; libraries will want this version, as will cooking schools or the larger restaurants.

The downside to this book: There needs to be more discussion about the impact of websites and email and discussion forums on the Internet. The book needs to be available as a word searchable database, on CD-ROM. Adobe PDFs would be useful – the New Yorker did it to great acclaim.

The upside to this book: In the fast-changing food world, nine years is a long time between editions. It is good to have this book back.

Quality/Price Rating: 96.

 

 

 

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