Cleaning Out the Basement–Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink

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The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink edited by Andrew F. Smith, Oxford University Press 2007, hardback, 693 pages

An Englishman teaching an American about food is like the blind leading the one-eyed.

–A.J. Liebling

When I was in school (and pre-internet) no one ever sold their copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. And I think for food historians, this book is the equivalent. So I felt very lucky to find a copy, in good shape, at Weschler’s auction house, just waiting for me to bundle it into a bit lot.

It will be the companion of my old age, the argument settler at the dinner table, and a source of fun facts for years to come.

It’s an encyclopedia, starting with the first entry, A&W Root Beer Stands. Let the nostalgia begin! On the way to speak with the minister who would marry us, my husband and I passed one of the few remaining A&W stands. We sat through his probing questions, and rewarded ourselves with hot dogs and floats. Oh yeah, this will work.

The encyclopedia tells me that a standardized menu, which included salads (!), was created in 1978, but if this backwoods Rhode Island outpost served such a thing, we didn’t see it.

You want to know the Z entry, right? It’s Zombie, the tiki drink invented by Don the Beachcomber. Sorry, no memories here, but I think that’s the idea behind a Zombie. And the book includes a recipe, so who knows?

In between are short and long entries covering the very specific–concentrated orange juice, the Quaker Oats Man, switchel–to the very broad–salt, food marketing, ethnic foods.

Personalities appear, from the well-known who have almost become brands in themselves like Orville Redenbacher and Robert Mondavi, to the lesser known like Katherine Bitting, who, with her husband “established a model ketchup factory” where they experimented with recipes to find a shelf-stable, preservative-free ketchup. The secret? More sugar and vinegar.

And the reason we love encyclopedias–the downright obscure, like historical dining reenactments, Fletcherism, the hoagie. The last of which is not obscure if you’re from New Jersey, in which case it’s just a hoagie, but if you’re from somewhere else, it’s a grinder, sub, spuckie, or wedge.

Whether it is the starting point for an in-depth thesis (every time a page turns a student earns her doctorate) or a source to settle an argument, this book is an indispensable companion.

About Appetite for Books

read, cook, eat, repeat
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