Helen Peacocke looks at one of the best reference works on food, containing some 3,000 entries
Now in its third edition, The Oxford Companion to Food, has been called the best food reference work ever to appear in the English language. It is a book that no serious foodie should be without.
Published by Oxford University Press, £40, and edited by writer and publisher Tom Jaine, who specialises in food and food history, this splendid book provides the reader with 3,000 entries, a unique blend of food history, culinary expertise and entertaining serendipity. Where else can you look up cowboy dish sonofabitch stew and learn it contained ingredients from a newly killed fat calf, heart, liver, tongue, pieces of tenderloin, sweet-breads, brain and marrow gut. Or that Jerusalem artichoke is a plant native to Peru, which tastes as good served raw and shredded into a salad as cooked.
Brose is an interesting insertion. It is indeed one of the most basic words in the vocabulary of Scottish cooks and was originally used to refer to one of the sim- plest Scottish dishes, a dish of oatmeal, which differs from porridge insomuch as the oats are not cooked, they are just mixed with boiling water or milk.
The Oxford Companion to Food was 20 years in the making. The first edition appeared in 1999 to worldwide acclaim thanks to the late respected food historian Alan Davidson, who founded the Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery in 1981. He also wrote the highly acclaimed Seafood of South East Asia. His initial contract to write this book was to produce it within five years. He failed on that count. The companion took 20 years to complete, but given its size and the infinite care that Alan took researching each subject, it is easy to see why. It is not a recipe book, it was Alan’s intention to write it without adding a single recipe: he achieved this. The companion does not contain details of wine and food matches either, as Alan didn’t drink. You will have to go to The Oxford Companion to Wine edited by Jancis Robinson for that.
One of Alan’s aims was to provide a book that would be read by women whose fingers would not grow weary turning the pages. Alan states that he has always assumed when he writes it is for a female audience, though why he says this he does not know. Perhaps he felt that women would appreciate his sense of fun and idiosyncratic take on certain subjects. This book which combines a comprehensive catalogue of the world’s foodstuffs, gives us the exotic and mundane, extraordinary and everyday — with a rich account of the culture of food, whether expressed in literature and cookery books or as dishes peculiar to a country or community.
Tom Jaine picked up the reins on this edition, though he had worked closely with Alan on the first edition and later took over as its editor.
Speaking of the changes he said: “The OUP specification was fairly stringent. I don’t think I had more than about 40,000 words of new material and amendments so this did mean that some big subjects had to be quite short essays.
“I might have quite enjoyed thinking about a reworking of the format of the book (ie I find it quite heavy to handle and difficult to riffle through) but they did not want to visit that aspect. On the other hand, I have managed to persuade them to put the cross references into the main body of text, saving the reader having to consult the unsatisfactory list at the back of the book.
“There were some things that were abridged, but not whole articles, save literally one or two. We have striven to keep the Alan we all knew and loved.
“When I put in new stuff it has been to broaden the scope of the book, a mere reflection of how we have all broadened our appreciation of the role that food and its attendant controversies play in our lives.”
Tom said that Alan was sometimes wary of big subjects — anthropol-ogy, politics, obesity, for example — but admitted that he felt it was incumbent on a new edition to at least acknowledge their existence. He asks us to consider our views of obesity, which have changed considerably over time. Once a fat man implied wealth and even power. Once mothers would think fat babies were healthy and overfed them to achieve this aim. Now the rich and the educated are less likely to be obese than those who are not. But how to extend the benefits of wealth to those with nothing at all is a problem to chew on, one of many problems highlighted in this remarkable book.