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The Penguin Companion to Food
Alan Davidson (editor)

Reviewed by Elliot Essman

I grew up in a house filled with books. Even before I could read, the books fascinated me, especially the markings and tiny logos I’d note on the bindings. I’d know the books by those little logos: the Random House set of houses, for example, or the Alfred A. Knopf leaping dog. The small paperbacks, the ones I’d first come to actually open, my favorites, were the Penguins. I think I even had a name for that penguin, but it is now lost. These were the original Penguin Classics, the ones in the plain paper covers before the firm decided to go a slick black, books like Don Quixote or Crime and Punishment or The Canterbury Tales. I wouldn’t read these books until later in life, but I’d fondle them, leaf through the front and end matter, the lists of other titles, and know that they had value, and a certain evocative British-ness to boot. Penguin is part of a big international conglomerate today, but I find they still maintain a link to that original perceived value. Alan Davidson’s The Penguin Companion to Food is a perfect example.

The 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 that 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 North American Indians. 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 now the Companion has given me the 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.” You get the idea.

I spent several months reading this ambitious work page by page, item by item (usually while in bed). My copy, like my tempura, is proudly battered. I cannot expect every reader to share my addiction to food knowledge, but, never mind, this masterpiece is truly an essential on any culinary shelf. Top -- Culinary Reviews Home

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