The Oxford Companion to Food, 3rd Edition: book review and competition

Edinburgh is awash with festivals. In Inverleith Park, Foodies Festival is winding up, while across the centre of town, the International and Fringe festivals are getting into stride in their second week. Meanwhile, in Charlotte Square, the Edinburgh International Book Festival (EIBF) has just started.

The book festival has a special place in my heart: I’m an avid reader and a writer. I enjoy learning about other writer’s methods and experiences, and seeing some of my heroes on stage.  To celebrate EIBF, you’ll see a couple of book reviews over the next few weeks. The first one is for The Oxford Companion to Food (3rd edition), a wonderful book that holds more that just useful information: it’s worth dipping in to for the writing too. It will be published on 21 August, 2014.

The first page of the letter H: all kinds of joy waits within.

The first page of the letter H: all kinds of joy waits within.

The Oxford Companion to Food, 3rd Edition.

The Oxford Companion to Food, 3rd Edition.

The Oxford Companion to Food is a food encyclopedia. To some, this might seem like an odd type of book: isn’t everything you want to know online now? Why use a book? The wonderful thing about a good encyclopedia is that you can read it for fun. Pick it up, open it anywhere, and read an entry. You’ll learn something, and you’ll probably be inspired to look something else up. The Companion is like that. I’ve used it to look up specific things – fava beans, for example, and surströmming (just to see if it was in there). As someone who loves books and food in equal measure, this book is a gem. It covers a wide range of topics, some unexpected, like the article on sin-eating.

sin-eating – a curious practice by which a professional sin-eater was supposed to consume the since of a person recently dead by consuming foods before or after the funeral.”

As you’d expect from an encyclopedia, all articles are arranged alphabetically so the book itself is an index. There is also a subject index so you can scan through categories to see if a topic is covered. Even the references are interesting: I was interested to see scamorza, that smoked, waxy cheese I’ve enjoyed melting at a raclette party,  re-direct to caciocavallo, a word I’ve never heard. Articles are as long or short as they need to be. The article on herring (which surströmming redirects to) is riveting. It covers geography, history, politics and gastronomy and is well referenced. At the back of the book is a long list of references, a wealth of writing on food, a treasure in itself. Some articles cover very large topics while some don’t need to be much more than definitions.

Information is not the only pleasure the Companion provides. I love the way some pages offer unexpected juxtapositions, a side-effect of the alphabetical organisation. For example, page 413 has articles on insects as food, internet and food, intestines (see chitterlings) and Inuit cookery. The three of them on one page tickles me. I don’t know where to start: these are all fascinating articles. (Of course, I blog so I start with internet and food.)

Pasta: some articles are highlighted. I enjoyed both pasta an ergot.

Pasta: some articles are highlighted. I enjoyed both pasta and ergot.

The Companion is not the work of one person. It was started by Alan Davidson and is now edited by Tom Jaine, and a large number of people from across the globe contribute their expertise. All contributors are listed with a short description or bio. Each hold to the books ethos: it should be pleasure to read. And it is. Whether looking up a particular article, reading articles out loud on a rainy afternoon (reading out loud passes for entertainment in our household) or opening a random page to see where it will take me, the guide entertains and educates. It’s a great addition to the bookshelf and my first destination for food-related information.

The Oxford Companion to Food

The Oxford Companion to Food (3rd ed.).
Alan Davidson (2014)
Tom Jaine, ed.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
ISBN 0-19-967733-6.

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About Caroline von Schmalensee

Cooking, eating and drinking is fun as well as necessary. I do food for fun and I write for a living. Good food makes the world a more delicious and satisfying place. Good writing, meanwhile, can make the world a less confusing place.


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