I don’t even cook, but I do eat and drink. How could you not be fascinated by the story of foods and beverages, their endless variety and tastes, from small artisanal shops to the most famous brands on grocery store shelves? The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, edited by Andrew F. Smith (2007, Oxford University Press) is great book, written by dozens of experts who are specialists in their fields, covers it all: over 600 pages of alphabetical entries from A to Z, from cheeses to Church’s Fried Chicken, from McDonald’s to moonshine.
I own thousands of reference books, and this one is a “textbook” example of what makes a reference book great. First, it is comprehensive. Many subject encyclopedias like this would not talk about specific companies or the men and women who built them – this one does, with entries for Heinz, Hershey, and many other great leaders and enterprises. The Oxford Companion has excellent histories, and even a very long entry called “historical overview,” to put everything in perspective.
The book is also well illustrated (mainly in black and white, with a few color plates), contains further references (a bibliography) on each entry, has some very helpful appendices (like lists of festivals, museums, and websites), and is fully indexed (not always true of alphabetical reference books, though it should be). The net result is that this is THE go-to book for any cook or anyone just interested in food and drink. It is the place to start in any research or curiosity, and will quickly lead you to further sources if you need them. The writing is excellent and concise. Using the skills of a huge team of writers and experts really pays off on a project like this, but a strong editor is required to pull it all together.
In recent years, several reference books on food and drink have been published, some of them with fewer pictures, others with higher prices. Some cover food of the world, and I expect I will report on them in the future. But for a great one-volume reference book on American food and drink, you can’t beat this one. It recently came out in paperback.