on November 25, 1999
Simply the best new book about food in years. An extraordinary compendium of knowledge, brilliantly put together and superbly written. Amazing amount of research went into a book that looks at food around the world. A great companion to Larousse and other great books on food. Fascinating to browse through.
on June 22, 2004
The Pengiun Companion (in its hardcover original the Oxford Companion to Food) runs more than a thousand pages and contains more than 2500 entries on every plant and animal product, every cooking tradition and technique, of any relevance to the well-schooled cook. It is universal in its scope, yet at the same time, how can I put this, British. A team of eminent culinary scholars put this one together. Now I know you're wondering, before anything else, if the flightless bird of the Antarctic itself is edible. The answer is, with some reservations, yes. The book's 500-word entry on its namesake ingredient shows at once the usual detail and characteristic humor of the Companion's approach. We are told that we are often reminded of the penguin by the paperback edition of a book or by "observing at social functions those few Englishmen who still dress up to look like waiters or penguins-it is never clear which." The problem with the technically edible penguin is that it eats only fish and hence tastes strongly like its diet. The penguin is most important in the food chain for the guano it leaves as waste, an excellent fertilizer. South Africans eat the eggs of some species of penguins.
British foods-"Yorkshire Pudding," "Cheshire Cheese," Scottish Haggis," and scores of others less known to us-get thorough treatments of course, but so do foods from all over the globe. One need only look at the companions to the "Penguin" entry in the Penguin Companion to learn something new about two quintessentially American food traditions. Move one up alphabetically from "Penguin" and you learn the essence of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking: the "interplay of sweet flavors against salty ones," sweet apples, for instance, combined with salty ham. The entry covers the usual explanation that the Pennsylvania Dutch aren't really Dutch at all; "Dutch" was originally a term used in America to refer to people who spoke German, a corruption, perhaps, of "Deutsch." Move one entry down from "Penguin" and you get a thorough entry on "Pemmican," the product of hardened preserved meat associated with native North Americans. The word, it seems, is derived from the Cree pimiy, meaning "grease." I've always known that small berries were added to a dried meat and fat mixture to make pemmican, but the Companion postulates a reason: the berries contain benzoic acid, a natural preservative, which inhibits bacterial growth. Skip up slightly and you get a full page on the important spice "Pepper." Move back a few and you get the full story on "Peking Duck." It's all here in exhaustive detail.
Not everyone is as insane as I was to read every entry, every page, but this masterpiece is truly a good companion. I'm still looking for another book to occupy me so thoroughly, for so long.
Food writer Elliot Essman's other reviews and food articles are available at [...]
on December 7, 1999
This heroic effort to describe every aspect of food is replete with concise information, smart essays on many topics, and a sharp sense of humor. You will not be able to put it down.
on January 5, 2000
Received this book for Christmas. I couldn't have received a better gift, and haven't for a long time. Excellent entries on almost all foods, many of them new to the USA and many from other cultures. I will keep this as a reference. One search for an answer inevitably leads to another..fantastic!
on March 15, 2000
A few months ago I took over cooking chores in my family. One of the things I missed was a comprehensive reference which was easy to use. No longer. Covering everything from Aardvark to Zucchini, this book has become indispensable. The entries are not only informative, but are written in plain English, so you don't have to be up on the latest cooking jargon to understand what you're reading. If you need more information, the book has a far-ranging Bibliography. One note: The "Index" really isn't one. It's a translation table you can check if the item you're looking for isn't in the alphabetical listing.
Enjoy this book. It's fun to just dip into and read randomly as well as a useful kitchen appliance.
`The Oxford Companion to Food', edited by the noted English culinary writer and diplomat, Alan Davidson is a foody reader's compendium to lots of interesting articles about sources, history, some people, and most places regarding food and drink. It is quite properly named a `companion' rather than an `encyclopedia', since, unlike the seemingly similar `Larousse Gastronomique', it contains no recipes whatsoever. This is not an accident or oversight, as Davidson clearly states in the introduction that this was an editorial policy from the outset.
This book has a distinctly British flavor about it with its selection of article topics. While there is an excellent longish article on Elizabeth David, easily the most important British food writer of the 20th century, there are no articles on either Julia Child or James Beard, the two most popular and well known American food writers. Alternately, there is an excellent article on M. F. K. David who is much less well known even among Americans. Child and Beard are mentioned but once at the end of an article on American cookbook writing. This choice is an excellent symptom of what this book is all about. It is not about cooking so much as the writing about food culture. While Child and Beard were cookbook writers par excellence, David and Fisher dealt less with food than they did with appetites, impressions, scholarship, and recollections?
The book is oddly selective in other ways. It has an article of goodly length on H. J. Heinz, but nothing on Milton Hershey. These two men are, in the United States, of at least equal renown; they were contemporaries, and both set up their businesses in Pennsylvania at about the same time. Another oddity is the fact that there is an article on Nepal, where, I suspect, very little grows, but no article on Senegal on the west coast of Africa and the ancestral home of many slaves brought to the new world and, therefore, the source of many food memories which contributed to `soul food' cuisine.
This is not to say this is not a valuable book. Many articles give fuller coverage to many culinary subjects than even books that specialize in some subjects. Two sidebar articles on pasta and chilis, for example, give fuller lists of the varieties of these two items than many good cookbooks on the subject. The pasta article is also careful to indicate the regionality of the names of some pasta shapes. I believe the pasta article, for one, could have been even better if it had given us pictures of the various shapes. I really feel that Orecchiette doesn't really look like ears, even though all texts describing it always say it does.
The book also avoids some common mistakes with accurate information on, for example, the components of the sharp vapors from a cut onion. Unlike lots of simpler minds, the article on same points out that these tearing fumes are really composed of many different components, which is part of the reason why most methods for avoiding them don't work.
The book is so dedicated to it's no recipe policy that it doesn't even give us articles on some basic preparations such as `buerre blanc'. It also does not even include recipes for such basics as mayonnaise or pesto.
This book is very good, but it is not as valuable a culinary resource as the aforementioned `Larousse Gastronomique' which provides thousands of basic recipes and pictures for just about everything imaginable, including uniforms of Renaissance culinary guild members. This book is also a bit pricy, listing at close to the price of a copy of Larousse. So, if you are a foody who must own every notable book on food, then buy this. But, if you are only interested in books to help you cook, get the Larousse. Note that the paperback version of this volume is published by Penguin and is therefore known as `The Penguin Companion to Food'.
on February 26, 2000
A sheer delight for all you "foodies" out there. This is a goldmine of information on world cuisine that must have taken years to compile. There are, of course, some omissions - I still haven't found out what the Cornish game hen that features in so many American cookbooks actually is - but it would be hard to beat this magnificent encyclopaedia for sheer scope and enthusiasm. An added bonus: the excellent illustrations by Laotian artist Soun Vannithone.
on August 23, 2001
This is a book foodies will greatly savor, and anyone who eats will find it fascinating. Written in erudite, Oxbridge prose, it is not just a book for scholars; it's everything you always wanted to know about food, any kind of food, raised anywhere in the wide world.
The entries are arranged in alphabetical fashion to expedite your research whenever you have a question; you will also enjoy just leafing through this large volume, filled with intriguing food facts. It brings to mind one of my favorite Kipling couplets from childhood days, "The world is so full of a number of things, I think we should all be as happy as kings."
What a feast for the reader! It's well worth the money. My copy has pride of place on my kitchen cookbook shelf.
on June 5, 2001
The Companion, at some 800-plus pages, could charitably be described as "well fed," and thank goodness for it. Davidson's wit and extraordinary research shine through on every page, whether discussing the finer details of apple species or the cultural significance of eating dogs. Although obviously unable to provide every detail of every cuisine, Davidson (and his contributers) have nevertheless included especially complete entries relating to Japanese, Indian, Chinese and Middle Eastern traditions, in addition to the more expected coverage of Europe and Anglo-America. In short, gorge yourself on this fine book - you'll keep turning back to it not only for reference but sheer pleasure.
on April 13, 2000
The best part is that it doesn't have recepies; the author almost boasts for keeping them out. Planning a visit to some remote country and want to know what and how they eat before you start your trip? Read the relevant entry and you are home. Many more... just buy it.