BOOK REVIEW / Making a meal of it: The Faber book of food - ed Colin Spencer and Claire Clifton - Faber pounds 17.50

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AT FIRST sight this seems a volume for gluttons: so large that even the greediest reader can't devour it at a single sitting. But since the entries are often composed of single paragraphs, one can wolf them in rapid succession like canapes at a cocktail party. After a while one longs for more substantial fare: an entire essay by Colette, for example, rather than the meagre eight lines allotted her. Still, anthologies always call out the querulous in critics. While connoisseurs of food writing will doubtless find many of their favourite things omitted from this collection, there is much to please the most jaded palate in a book that travels from the hunger of childhood to the subtle satisfactions of cannibalism.

Diana Cooper, whose snobbish outpourings take up a great deal of room, provides one devastating example of the cruelty of the traditional upper-class upbringing that was dished out by nannies: 'poor Letty, like so many children, while not dainty, could not swallow her food. Round and round it went in her mouth, colder and more congealed grew the mutton fat, further away receded the promising pudding, and very often I saw her unfinished plate put cold into the cupboard for tea.' Far more fun attached to the childhood picnics in India recalled by Madhur Jaffrey, when it was a question of not only stuffing food into people but stuffing people into conveyances: 'The art of getting thirty people into two cars had long been mastered. The first layer consisted of alternating teenagers and short ladies, with the teenagers sitting perched on the edge of the seat. On their laps went the second layer of slim ten- to twelve-year-olds. The third layer, sitting on the laps of the second layer, consisted of those under ten. The tall men and servants sat in the front seat. On their laps sat the fat ten- to twelve-year-olds holding all the baskets and pots that could not be stuffed into the trunk.'

The preparing and serving of food, of course, reflects and defines cultures and classes. So food writing can serve as a window through which the English can gaze upon the exotic: Lawrence Durrell watching Greek cooks spit-roast lambs' entrails, Andrew Higgins sampling Crispy Fried Rat with Lemon in Canton. Frances Trollope berates the Americans for lack of skill in sauces; Nancy Mitford delights in feudal Irish kitchens abounding in servants and cream. You can't blame the English for romanticising foreign cuisine when you read E M Forster's description of what they fled from. 'The porridge was in pallid grey lumps, the prunes swam in grey juice like the wrinkled skulls of old men . . . I had a haddock. It was covered with a sort of hard yellow oilskin, as if it had been out in a lifeboat, and its inside gushed salt water when pricked. Sausages and bacon followed this disgusting fish. They, too, had been up all night.'

The great English cook Hannah Glasse offers a recipe for salad not calculated to enhance our reputation abroad: 'Take fresh Horse-dung hot, and lay it in a Tub near the Fire, then sprinkle some Mustard-seeds thick on it, and lay a thin Lay of Horse-Dung over it, cover it close and keep it by the Fire, and it will rise high enough to cut in two hours.'

Where the section on 'Cooks and Cooking' is over-rich with the whingeing of precieuses ridicules (George Eliot should have written on Silly Cook-Books by Silly Lady Hostesses of both sexes), the one that follows is full of delights. Perhaps 'Entertaining and Hospitality' sums up what can be most delicious about food: sharing it in the company of beloved friends, both fierce and witty. At any rate, here were some of the stories I most enjoyed, where the food anecdote really comes into its own as literature: Fay Weldon on hideous modern women ruining the hostess's weekend menus with their notions of expensive simplicity; Balzac on the culinary genius of a concierge; Pliny on the joys of snails and barley-cake; Martial on trendy rocket; Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun giving an antique Greek supper for her friends; George Borrow being charmed by snowy sugar-lumps in Wales. This chapter was a feast in itself.

More sombre, properly and instructively, are the sections on 'Prison and Poverty' and 'War and Rationing'. There's hardly anything in the volume about the sexual politics of food (scant mention of women's ambivalence about non-stop cooking and nurturing; just one brief mention of anorexia), but there is tough stuff to chew on when it comes to injustice and oppression. George Orwell defends working people from the patronising inroads of 'parties of Society dames' with 'the cheek to walk into East End houses and give shopping lessons to the wives of the unemployed'. Enter Diana Cooper: 'I daresay 14/- didn't leave much for clothes but they didn't have to pay pounds 12 for a hat as you do.'

John Burns is eloquent, speaking in the House of Commons on the Prison Bill: 'I had the bread at 5.30pm and nothing till 7.45 next morning. I am not ashamed to say that at 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning I have wetted my hands with my spittle and gone down on my hands and knees in the hope of picking up a stray crumb from the meal I had had ten hours before. By that diet you break down and enfeeble a man's constitution.' J G Ballard gives a prison-camp recipe for weevils with cracked wheat. Susan Cooper is wry about the Food Ministry's desperate attempt to sell the British housewife Snoek Piquante.

The real horrors in this book are confined to the brief section that crisply describes just how we butcher cattle and pigs. If you can survive this without deciding to become vegetarian, you'll have no trouble with the book's final triumph, 'The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy' and its lyrical comparison of roast human flesh to 'good, fully developed veal'. Bon appetit]