The Oxford Companion to Food, by Alan Davidson. Oxford University Press, 1999, 800-451-7556. 912 pages. $60.

The thing about scholarly companions is that they usually lack the quiddities that make books sing rather than just mumble; they fuel specialists with information but rarely inspire anyone else. Not so The Oxford Companion to Food. Alan Davidson, writes lucidly, crisply, anecdotally. Language charms him almost as much as food fascinates him; he has an eye for rich quotations.

Indeed, Davidson is the ideal author of such a companion. As a diplomat, he served in several countries before becoming British Ambassador to Laos. While still a diplomat he wrote a book on fish. He then pursued a second career in food history, writing several more books, co-founding the annual Oxford Food Symposium, co-founding Petits Propos Culinaires, a food journal which he also edits, and establishing Prospect Books to publish food books, including editions of classic English cookbooks. His publishing career familiarized him with scholars working in arcane fields of culinary interest. He has brought them into the Companion, ceding whole entries to experts.

Davidson is nothing if not inclusive. As might be expected from an authority on fish, the piscatorial entries are particularly rich, as are entries on vegetables, fruits, and Asian foods. Entries on British specialities excel in thoroughness and liveliness. Take the description of steak and kidney pudding. The reader learns that steak puddings were known in the 18th century, but kidney did not feature until 1861, when Mrs. Beeton included it in her recipe. Davidson describes pudding and pie versions of the dish, explaining why pies are more common. (They are easier to make.) Finally, he says that in Cockney rhyming slang, steak and kidney pudding is “Kate and Sydney Pud.”

Similarly, he gives an exemplary description of Roly-Poly Pudding, “a pudding with a sweet filling such as jam or treacle and breadcrumbs, or mixed dried fruits with marmalade, in each case spread over the flat surface of the dough and rolled up…. And when it is baked instead of boiled… then, as Humpty Dumpty said, ‘there’s glory for you!'”

Noah’s Ark, he says, “presents many problems to the literal-minded, not least, the food problem. It is indeed difficult to imagine how the logistics could have been handled.” From this point, he describes medieval theories on the feeding of the animals. (Apparently Jewish writers favoured the idea that each animal must have its favourite food at the customary time, while St. Augustine took the practical line that hungry animals will eat anything.)

Such entries reveal curiosity rather than frivolity, humour rather than solemnity, and most significantly, an open mind. Davidson could not be more unlike those self-appointed experts who admire only what is rare or elaborate, and therefore expensive. He is as capable of praising a rice pudding as he is of deprecating people with “pretensions to gourmet status” who disapprove of inexpensive foods such as corned beef. “A classic English salad dish consists of slices of corned beef served with lettuce leaves, tomato quarters, slices of beetroot, and ‘salad cream.’ This is delicious,” he insists.

The Oxford Companion to Food contains no recipes. No problem. It informs and entertains, and it will hasten you into your kitchen.

Claire Hopley