The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson, ed. Tom Jaine

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Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

My best friend and I met through books; she was running a discount bookshop that I used to shop in, after a while she gave me a job, and even after our respective careers took us out of bookshops we have continued to meet in them, seek them out, compare purchases, swap books as gifts, and generally delight in a shared passion. She has a particular love for reference books so when I got this copy of The Oxford Companion To Food I casually produced it for her to look at (I say casually, it weighs not much shy of 3 kilos so some effort was required) she actually quivered with delight. Every time I’ve looked at it since that moment of pure enthusiasm has returned; it’s partly why I retain such an emotional attachment to books.

It’s not all emotional though. I may not get as excited by an obscure dictionary as my friend does but I’m a big fan of the Oxford Companions. They’re reassuringly authoritative in times of doubt and thorough enough to answer any reasonable question. They are undoubtedly books to be trusted, and these are things I value. This is the 3rd edition of The Oxford Companion to Food. The first edition, published in 1999, was the product of twenty years of research on the part of Alan Davidson and his collaborators. Davidson’s books are all worth seeking out (North Atlantic Seafood is a particular favourite of mine) and he also founded Prospect Books who specialise in works about cookery, food history, and the ethnology of food – their website is well worth investigating. Sadly Davidson died in 2003 but his work at Prospect and editorship of ‘The Oxford Companion to Food’ have both been more than ably continued by Tom Jaine.

Probably the first thing to say about this book is that it doesn’t contain recipes, and it’s not specifically about cooking – it’s about food, which is a much wider subject and it’s why we all need a copy along with our cookbooks. This is the book to go to if you want a better understanding of what a particular ingredient is, what some technical term means, or if you want an overview of something – all of which hardly begins to cover what you will find in it. The handy ‘Notes on Using this Book’ section accepts that in the first instance it will be used to look something up, but politely points out that it is written with the intention that browsing through it should be a pleasure. It is a pleasure. It’s taken me weeks to write this piece because every time I sit down with the book I find myself pulled into it, quickly and utterly distracted from the task at hand. Increasingly I simply open it at random and follow the lead of whatever topic takes my eye, either chasing cross-references through the pages or just hopping from subject to subject.

Which brings me to the second thing I really want to say about this book. It’s funny. Witty is a better word – though never at the expense of scholarship; Davidson wrote his first edition with dry humour and plenty of jokes and Jaine has maintained that tone. It turns the Companion into a page-turner. I’ve got into the habit of taking it to bed with me (all almost 3 kilos of it) because it is such a joy to read.

In an attempt to round up my thoughts I’ve now closed the book and placed it just out of reach (though not out of sight or mind). It’s one I can’t recommend highly enough. Food is such a fundamental element of life that not having a book like this to hand feels like a terrible omission to me (I’m very grateful for this shiny new update to my tatty old, but much loved, copy). I know that much of the information (though not the particular charm) in a book like this can be found online but I find the Oxford companions better fulfil the role of friendly guide, or as the preface to the second edition would have it, ‘a trusty friend on a journey of intellectual discovery’. They are not just ‘a last resort for the doubtful’ but perhaps, and certainly in my case, they are the first resort when doubtful. For all it’s size it’s much more manageable to navigate than the whole wide web and once fairly embarked on an exploration there are plenty of prompts to take the user further on that journey of intellectual discovery. Interested in food, the politics of food, the production of food, the history of food, different food cultures – for which I could just as easily simply say cultures, nutrition, the science of food, and oh so much more? Well then – this is undoubtedly a book for you.

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Hayley Anderton blogs at Desperate Reader.

Alan Davidson, edited by Tom Jaine, The Oxford Companion To Food, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014) 978-0-19-967733-7, 912pp, hardback.

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