The Oxford Companions to Food & Wine (Plus a Dead Dog)

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:24

    Eating by the Book My dog died the week before Christmas. He was a young dog, vigorous, cheerful, not the kind of dog you would expect to see felled, abruptly, just a few days past his fourth birthday. A Jack Russell terrier, and they don't just die. They bounce and hop and scoot and yap and glory in broad havoc, in most cases, right up until that fateful day sometime in their midteens when the snarling black Cerberus comes and, six yellow eyeballs narrowing, says, "Enough already?put down the ball, it's time to go." And, after the usual Jack Russell terrier look of incredulity ("Put down the ball?"), they go. I won't go into excessive detail about how my dog, Cooper, bought it. He had a disease I didn't know about and, while staying with my mother, essentially went into shock and died. I sobbed weakly and then, as the news sank in, more uncontrollably, a kind of sputtering, whimpering sob that hadn't struck me in years, not since some fundamental romantic defeats that I also won't go into. My actual theology regarding the passing of canines bears little resemblance to what I outlined above; the above was an effort to take the edge off, to be clever. The truth is that dogs live more fully in the world than we do. They lack souls, but they have the world, and when one of them dies, there exists, briefly, a hole in our shared reality, and everyone who ever knew the dog mourns in small measure, until collectively they close the hole and replace the simple goodness that was the dog. That's how it works. That's how we use our own souls to salve the wound that the death of a dog tears in the flesh of life.

    The point of this particular column, however, isn't to drone on about my dead dog. The point is this, rather: About two years ago, I wasn't sure that I wanted the dog. Or, more accurately, I wasn't sure why I had gotten the dog in the first place. It was a tough time for me. I was moving out of my apartment in Manhattan and back to Brooklyn and I felt encumbered. Work wasn't going as well as it could have been. The dog loved me, but I wasn't even sure if that was the kind of love I desired, sought, needed. Still, I had no intention of giving in to the phase. Cooper and I were bonded. I knew what his tender pink stomach smelled like, was acquainted with the shimmer of sunlight off his white fur after a bath. His pert ears, his short, metronomic tail. His devious stare. These aren't things you throw out on a whim.

    So I got rid of all my books instead. Part of a general purge, but the most severe aspect of it. The sale of my books netted me only about $150, but profit wasn't really the issue. Minimalizing was. Besides, unlike Cooper, whom I came once again to care about deeply, even revere, I was at the end of my rope with my goddamn books, which I had hauled from dorm to rented house to apartment for better than a decade. What did I care about those translations of Aristotle, the Signet edition of The Brothers Karamazov, my little shelf of plays, the poetry of Robert Lowell? A possession cult, all of it. Spines uncracked for years and years. Vanity. Clutter.

    And, naturally, another rash decision I came to regret. About a year after the liquidation of my literature, I decided I wanted to read books again, and so went off in search of my second library. (At first only hardcover first editions, but I've since eased that requirement and gone hog-wild on ratty paperback erotica and tea-stained orphan copies of Tama Janowitz, dogeared Hemingway, decomposing DeLillo.) In the process, I began to amass a section of wine and food reference titles, and to their ranks I can now add both the second edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by the formidable British wine writer Jancis Robinson, and the inaugural Oxford Companion to Food, which I will now talk about at length. (Both books are about $60, roughly the cost of a decent meal or a better-than-average California cabernet sauvignon.)

    I have a great deal of experience with the wine Companion (I currently use it more than any of my dictionaries). It's a daunting, indispensable volume, short on humor and long on magisterial pronouncement. (Unlike Jancis Robinson herself, whose wine-writing memoir, Tasting Pleasure, is a wonderful, limber, entertaining read?the best wine memoir, in my opinion, ever written.) I was expecting the same from the Companion to Food, 20 years in the making under the editorial stewardship of Alan Davidson (one of those British polymaths who has done time as a diplomat and published a novel, and who is evidently one of England's reigning experts on the subject of fish).

    The food Companion is, however, nothing like the wine Companion. The food book is cumulatively giddifying, and here's what I mean by that: There is a point, when you're together with friends and you're all laughing hysterically at something, at which you pass a point of no return, and after which the laughter becomes a self-perpetuating loop and matters go sloppy. You gasp, you wheeze. Your eyes water. You don't need drugs, you've got the uncontrolled cackle. It's bliss, it's sublime and it happens rarely. It begins with a perfectly reasonable bout of the giggles, or with some stupid joke, and then it spirals wildly according to its own chaotic logic, past explanation. The unfunny is suddenly uproarious. Anything is funny?dumb words, informative words, cartography and physics: "poodle"; "creamy"; "Zimbabwe"; "molecule"; "Hoover."

    The Oxford Companion to Food, if you sit down and read all 900 pages?or approximately 8 pounds?of it, will provoke this effect in you, this snowballing case of the terminal chuckles, this gradual inability to forestall a plague of snickers. Which is not to say that the tome isn't crammed with chapter after alphabetically arranged chapter of useful data on cuisine and culture. I learned more about apricots in one sitting than I have in 30 years of eating the things. Bananas? Forget it. (Did you know that banana trees aren't really trees at all, but plants that just happen to grow to heights of 40 feet?) Whole pages devoted to sausages and pasta. Culinary myths debunked. (Searing meat to seal in the juices is a dangerous fiction, for instance; Marco Polo is not responsible for pasta in Italy; Medieval meats were not spiced to mask spoilage.) No, the Companion to Food is encyclopedic, to be sure. But here's the issue: There are all those animals in it.

    Animals we eat.

    And animals we aren't supposed to eat.

    The first entry, in fact, is an animal. Aardvark. And you can safely assume that if there are creatures of lower evolutionary rank included in a food book, there's a good chance that the entries will delve into the question of how, if ever, to cook them, and better yet, what they taste like. ("The reputation of the aardvark as food for humans is good. It is commonly described as tasting like pork.") The realization of this completely derailed my objective review of the Companion to Food. Yes, I looked up "Classical Greek" and "Classical Roman" cuisine and put my elbows on the tables, hunching deliberately as I read, trying to preserve for myself the illusion that I was conducting serious business. (How curious?the Romans used fish sauce instead of salt...) But it was foolish, this struggle to remain focused on the book's seriousness, because constantly bobbing in the back of my mind was the thought of tracking down the next beast that had, at some time, met a roasted, braised, grilled or boiled fate in the kitchen.

    Lions and tigers and bears (well, not tigers). Giraffes ("Even if it would be permissible to eat...there would be little that is palatable to be had from its carcass"). An entire double-page spread on pigs, including a few hundred words on "Pig-Killing: Theory and Practice." The rhinoceros (" would be inappropriate to think of [it] as a food resource"). The cricket ("The dug up from its deep burrows in Thailand and eaten with enthusiasm..."). The worm.

    And of course dogs, who merit the only entry in the Companion to Food that really dives into the at-times queasifying?or at least ethically vexing?relationship we have with the creatures we consume. "The supreme example," says the volume, "of animals which are regarded in the western world not just as pets but as true companions, in activity and thought, for human beings..."

    Hear, hear.

    Then: "...and consequently not to be even imagined as potential food."

    It seems to me that this is thoroughly, encompassingly true. I would argue that most people, if worst came to worst, could aim the hungry eye of insatiate appetite at pet cats and trained horses, at guinea pigs (included in the Companion, by the way: Darwin ate one that he himself shot when the HMS Beagle was in Patagonia), parrots, beloved bunnies and buoyant turtles, slumbering snakes, the morsel-like goldfish already frequently consumed by frat pledges. Even the exotica could find its way onto the table. Alligators. Lizards. Ferrets.

    But, the depths of privation being largely unplumbed in Western culinary society, conking Rover over the head with a frying pan and then roasting him is fundamentally off-limits. As I pondered this in my dogless kitchen, it occurred to me that it might be easier to imagine resorting to actual cannibalism than to engage in what a food writer from the 19th century called the "low grade of cannibalism" represented by consuming a dog. (Another food historian, in a 1996 treatise, reported on what must be considered perhaps the most barbarous kitchen practice imaginable, the Greek recommendation that puppies be eaten for the health benefits. Puppies.)

    I used to make a lot of jokes about cooking and eating my own dog before he died, but I probably would have starved before running a damp spit through him and turning him slowly over a mesquite fire. In sizing him up, it always seemed that his tender haunch would be the best part (he carried around about as much meat as a well-exercised rabbit), but I wouldn't have ruled out the loin. It never would have gotten that far. We don't eat dogs. We just don't.

    But according to the Companion to Food, ethical compunction has not prevented us from depriving ourselves of much else. We eat quite literally everything that can be pulled from the sea (a lot of the book's black-and-white stippled illustrations showcase fish), regardless of how bizarre the form. Forests have been emptied of their fauna so that our stomachs can be filled. With the exception of dogs, it seems that rare indeed has been the moment when a human did not stumble on some new species and, after deciding what to name it, considered whether it could be scarfed down. This entertained, then disturbed, me for about 10 minutes, until I reminded myself that we are, after all, superpredators, and that we can digest virtually everything. We are what we eat, and if we want, we can eat the entire world. At some risk, obviously, but even toxic taxonomies, such as the Japanese blowfish?fugu?have achieved delicacy status, merging our ecumenical gluttony with our tendency to deny that it has any limits whatsoever.

    The Oxford Companion to Food is something else, and if you're interested not merely in the minor details of what you fork into your gnashing maw day after day, but in the whole cultural significance of conquering the natural world by consuming it, then the book should find a place in your stacks.

    As for the second edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine, the improvements are significant, but mainly on the fringes. The wine industries of some countries have burgeoned in the past 10 years and thus required expanded entries, and a lot of new winemaking techniques have come into vogue across the board, meaning that numerous entries from the first edition had to be jiggered to take this into account. (Apparently, the revision job touched more than half the contents of the original.) The upshot is that the book, which was already the bible for anyone even vaguely interested in wine, has become the bible plus one, an improved version of something that was already close to perfect. There are plenty of wine books out there that purport to deliver readers the true dope?from Wine for Dummies to the Wine Brats' annoying contribution to the whole insipid "bring wine down to our level" movement. But with The Oxford Companion and maybe Robert Parker's fifth-edition Wine Buyer's Guide in the house, you'll have all the tools you need to hit every wine store in town with the essential mixture of history and savvy that hunting down wine demands.

    Wine is not beer. Wine is not fully democratic. Wine wouldn't be wine without a modicum?a modicum at least?of snobbery. Excessive snobbery is certainly a bad thing, but lurching too far in the other direction, something we are precariously close to doing, especially in the United States, is also a problem. A restoration of wine's haughty prerogatives, its regality, is overdue. And what we learn from the second edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine?and Jancis Robinson calls it?is that wine, despite its exploding popularity, is work.