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Oxford Companion to Food, The

by: Alan Davidson

Oxford England: Oxford University Press 1999, $60.00, Hardbound
ISBN: 0-19-211579-0

Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Spring Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(1) page(s): 22 and 29

Twenty years in the making, eight hundred ninety-two pages in the turning, and touted with 'less emphasis than people might expect on Europe and N. America, and more on other continents,' this book weighs in heavy on things Western. Davidson and his cohorts offer anecdotes, facts, and uneven entries throughout. He welcomes criticism and praise, and suggestions for any subsequent editions. Prior to his demise, he invited folks to contact him at: www.members.tripod.com/rdeh

With help from more than fifty contributors; initials appearing after each of their entries, he did complete the task. The Asian experts helping him include two Japanese scholars, one American herb and spice expert, a Southeast Asian cookbook author, a food historian of the Phillippines, an expert on Hawaiian foods, one author of food--mainly Indonesian, an authority on ancient Chinese food history, and several other cookbook experts, Overall, less than half of the fifty were experts on Asia, only one for things Chinese. The others did know lots about continental foods. Thus, the book may be monumental, but not for Asian information, which is the only focus of this magazine and this review.

Alphabetical, entries begin with 'Aardvark' and end thousands later, actually more than eight thousand, with 'Zucchini.' They are followed by a massive bibliographic listing, again mostly western, and a word list of a few hundred items that is selective and limited to one equivalent word for each of them.

Asian omissions and inclusions are worth noting. On the inclusion side, the second entry, 'Abalone,' does mention that the Chinese and Japanese are the greatest of enthusiasts. However, the Chinese are only mentioned in that sentence, the Japanese rate three paragraphs while Americans and Europeans get four of the nine about this mollusk.

In the 'Pigeon' entry, one-third of the six paragraphs are things European, none Asian. Even 'Rice,' which warrants three pages, has little about Asia and almost nothing about its use in China. And, there is one gross error in the pages about rice; it says: 'red rice in Asia may be ordinary rice dyed red as happens in China.' Clearly, no one who edited the volume knew about red rice wine lees or any Fujianese red rice dish, nor did they ask questions of anyone who might; they do not read this magazine or they would know better.

Speaking of the foods of the province of Fujian, there is no separate listing for that word though 'Fujian' is mentioned several times including in the China entry and in one titled 'Sweet Potato,' and maybe elsewhere, as well. The fishballs of the capital of this province, Fuzhou, are mentioned in the entry titled: 'China' with no cross-referencing for either of these words or any other; and there is no index in this massive tome. That is a major omission that could have easily been included in this age of computers. If it had an index, the book could be of exceptional value.

To carry the issue one step further, should one look for information about the foods of the Sichuan province, an important Chinese regional cuisine, they are not listed either, though there is a listing for 'Sichuan Pepper.' Read that entry and learn that the classification of this pepper as 'fagara' is obsolete. So is the term Oriental, overused throughout the book; Asian is the preferred nomenclature, as are Blacks instead of Negroes.

Many other Chinese entries you might want to learn about are among the missing such as Shanghai and other regional cuisines. This minimal attention to things Chinese, Asian as well, is unfathomable and unforgivable. In the real world, more people eat the foods of Asia every day than do all the people living in France and all of Europe. The Chinese do make up more than one-quarter of the world's population but make up hardly one percent of this book's world.

It is laughable that 'German Cookery Books' warrant an entry, while Chinese and other cookery volumes do not. 'Ginger' gets one line more than a full column but only one Chinese mention, as an important producer of this rhizome. 'Ginger Biscuits' and 'Gingerbread' get much more space. Most, but not all items Chinese and Asian are slighted.

'Ginkgo' does rate a half-column with things Chinese getting appropriate attention. 'Stir-fry' fares less well, it does have an entry, but only a piece of one sentence 'came into general use...in line with a growing interest in Oriental cookery techniques.' Even the word 'Oriental' gets short shrift among entry listings; there is one but only as 'Oriental Onions.' Another item of concern has to do with Chinese transliterations. In some entries only the Cantonese word is used (i.e.: Hsieng). In the 'Oriental Onion' entry there are correct Cantonese and Pinyin transliterations. In most places, there is no indication of dialect when more than one transliteration is given.

'Dim Sum' rates a third of a page without even using the word dumpling, which does have its own entry several pages away titled: 'Dumplings in Asia.' Yet no where in the two plus pages about these treats do they use the term Dim Sum. The Asian dumpling section refers to some of them as t'ang t'uan, a Wade Giles transliteration that is currently spelled tang yuen. We recommend that you see Mrs. Marr's article in this issue on page 11 for recipes and information about these fantastic rice ball dumplings.

Point belabored. Asian entries and information get short shrift in this food companion. This, from a former British Ambassador to Laos. Tsk! Tsk!

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