A pretext for eating butter

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The Oxford Companion to Food ed Alan Davidson (OUP £40)

The Oxford Companion to Food ed Alan Davidson (OUP £40)

'You should see what a book of Cookery I shall make," said Dr Johnson, who never fulfilled that ambition, a fate he shared with Hume, of whom another such aspirant Thomas Love Peacock recorded a famous anecdote in his essay "Gastronomy and Civilization": "The philosopher, though he may be very positive about what he does know, is equally ready to admit what he is deficient in. 'I am told you are a great epicure, Mr Hume,' said a lady to the distinguished historian. 'No, madam,' he replied, 'I am only a glutton.'"

If Peacock did not write the planned book on food, his novels are suffused with it, for example Dr Folliott's fraught arrival at breakfast in Crotchet Castle, when he takes his seat with the others "and began to compose his spirits by the gentle sedative of a large cup of tea, the demulcent of a well-buttered muffin, and the tonic of a small lobster". The 900 triple-columned pages of Alan Davidson's magnificent volume, a quarter-century in the making and written largely by himself, would have been seized with joy by Dr Folliott as the work of a kindred spirit: here, rooted in scholarship and life are wit and erudtion that do not shirk the outlandish. Quite where to begin in describing it presents a reviewer with uncommon difficulty, for one simply has to keep stopping to go and dip some more. This is not a book to fillet and summarise, it is one to absorb and make a very part of life.

Never a minute goes by without a deep chuckle, and there are times when one has to hoot and yell. It offers hope for civilisation, so much so that Davidson, in his preface, notes that he has eschewed passing fancies - and even omits genetically modified, Mengele food. Here, instead, is so much vicarious sustenance that one can easily forget to eat or simply grab a pizza (of which he notes Burton Anderson's remark, that "it has been said that if Naples had managed to patent the pizza it would now be among Italy's wealthiest cities instead of one of its poorest").

Davidson is erudite, cosmopolitan and democratic, qualities not always associated with the diplomatic profession to which he once belonged. Here he deliberates upon the history of chewing-gum ("a confection of sugar, flavouring, and an insoluble base which is eventually spat out"), the extraordinary disasters of the early cornflake industry, the composition of mango ("at its best the scent has a pleasant resinous quality; at its worst it smells strongly of kerosene which it actually contains") and the fact that among the more notable contribtions of Trinity College, Cambridge to the world is a form of crÿme brûlée, sometimes known as Trinity Cream because the College crest is embossed on the top. A sister of the University Librarian noted in 1909 that "it is amusing to remember that this recipe, which came from a country house in Aberdeenshire in the Sixties, was offered to the kitchen ... by an undergraduate, and rejected with contempt. When the undergraduate became a Fellow, just 30 years ago [in 1879], he presented it again; this time it was accepted as a matter of course. It speedily became one of the favourite dishes of May week."

Never let it be thought that Davdison is a slave to complexity and the recherché: of muffins, he notes that "they provide a physical base and a pretext for eating melted butter". At the same time he can be withering, as in the entry for picnic: "for many people, contemporary picnics involve an element of simplicity, where uncomplicated food such as hard-boiled eggs, sandwiches, pieces of cold chicken are eaten without ceremony". Wasp as a delicacy has an entry to itself - there is an ingenious Aborigine technique for catching and consuming them - and Monty Python is hoist by its own petard, for under Spam one finds that some esteem it, "although regarded with disfavour by those who eschew processed foods or have pretensions to gourmet status".

One can only concur with the entry for Davidson's plum (Davidsonia pruriens) which is "otherwise known as ooray, the fruit of a small tree, found in the rainforests of Queensland and northern New South Wales in Australia. As one would expect from its generic name, it is excellent". Davidson, or ooray as we should perhaps now call him, has produced a highly readable work of reference, one which does not abandon scholarship for colour but somehow manages to imbue all that he quotes with his own spirit, as he does those particular experts - such as Raymond Sokolov, the authority on vanishing American food - who contribute about a fifth of the work.

Davidson remarks in his preface that "all the books I have written, even my novel, have turned out to contain errors and to be flawed by omissions. The same will certainly be true of this book, and on a larger scale". But this is not the place to carp ("the common name applied to a limited number of species in several genera of the very extensive family Cyprinidae"). One might, though, wonder about the basis on which food writers win an entry; here, of course, are Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, but nothing on the Victorian chef Alexis Soyer. Still, it is for now a more pressing matter to to get hold of that novel, Something Quite Big, which is here described on the wrapper as "previously banned".

In the face of a government whose palate is so dull that it is subservient to an American corporation which wishes to foist Mengele food upon us, one must now sidestep the usual channels and presume to advise Her Majesty directly that she confer the Order of Merit upon Mr Davidson as soon as possible after the next fatality. In the meanwhile, a telephone poll suggests that if OUP had priced the book at £30, it would have sold twice as many copies - but, then again, the £10 surcharge is only the price of a bog-standard take-away and if the Press channels that profit into doing something about some of the dodgier Oxford college kitchens, one can hardly complain.

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