The New Food Lover’s Companion, by Sharon Tyler Herbst

I don’t cook, but I do eat. And while I may not be a gourmand in the strict sense, I appreciate fine food.

Ten years ago, on a bit of a lark, I picked up the second edition of The New Food Lover’s Companion, by Sharon Tyler Herbst. Anyone under the illusion that this is a book about eating in good company had better check the contents before making the investment. This is a reference work that works for me. The second edition boasts “comprehensive definitions of over 4000 food, wine and culinary terms.” Entries are arranged alphabetically and many include cross-references. Most important, there are guides to pronunciation for terms that are less familiar. Don’t know how to pronounce “coquilles St. Jacques”? Turn to page 147.

My copy is bound in 715 pages that open easily to the term I’m looking for. I refer to the book on those rare occasions when I’m trying to understand some exotic recipe. More often, I turn to it when I’m simply curious about what I’m eating or have eaten. Sometimes I skim for something that sounds delectable or adventurous. Just about every time I consult it for a specific term, I find myself checking out other entries. If were writing a novel, it might come in handy as a source for foods to mention or describe. A mystery novel, for example, might reveal that the victim of a crime had been poisoned from eating an unripe May apple. (Before her culinary debut with a book called Breads, Sharon Tyler Herbst wrote mystery fiction.)

This isn’t a book to read cover-to-cover. But that doesn’t disqualify it from inclusion in my Reading Jag posts. Here are some samples of its uses.

What are “floating islands,” also known as oeufs a la neige (not to be confused with ile flottante)? That burning question is answered on page 221.

Huckleberries proliferate in the Great Northwest. But how do you tell a huckleberry from a blueberry? Easy. Count the seeds! The huckleberry has ten small, hard seeds in the center of the berry. There are many more seeds in a blueberry, though they are hardly noticeable. See page 287.

Eating utensils and cooking tools are described. There’s a paragraph on the ice-cream scoop, for example.

There’s information here about cooking techniques, like induction cooking or making a soufflé.

What are those cookies you enjoyed so much at your friend’s big fat Greek wedding? Could they have been kourabiedes?

How are you when it comes to beer terms? Do you know the difference between a stout and a pilsner? What about ale versus lager? Can’t keep track of the different wines or sort out the various cheeses? You’ll find two pages for the entry on “wine,” including a lengthy list of terms defined elsewhere in the book. The general entry on wine also includes basic information about wine storage and serving temperatures. The entry that follows next is about “wine bottles,” addressing the various sizes: split, half bottle, magnum, double magnum, Jeroboam, Rehoboam, Methuselah, Imperial, Balthazar, and Nebuchadnezzar. (I’m not making this up.) The “cheese” entry spans two pages, and nearly a half page of terms for cross-reference.

At a loss when picking out an artichoke at the grocer? Consult The Food Lover’s Companion, page 21.

I didn’t know that “apples come 2 to 4 per pound, depending on size.” Did you? Which apples are best used for cooking? For “out-of-hand” eating? What’s the difference between a Golden Delicious and a Red Delicious, besides color? (For one thing, the Reds have five knobs on the bottom.) I’ve eaten Granny Smiths, Gravensteins, and Mcintosh apples. But there are others I wouldn’t know by name: Criterion, Jonathan, lady, Macoun, May, Newton Pippin, Rhode Island Greening, and Stayman apples. The May apple sounds most intriguing, and the Jonathan sounds especially tasty.

Fish presents special problems for the novice. At a favorite seafood restaurant in Laguna last week, my brother-in-law asked me about the taste of swordfish, one of my favorites when it isn’t baked dry. What could I tell him? Herbst is concise and on the money—swordfish is mild-flavored, with moderately fat, firm, dense and meatlike flesh. Of course, that’s more or less what I said.

The end pages of the book include a copy and explanation of the “Food Guide Pyramid,” produced and distributed by the USDA, guidelines for “Understanding Food Labels,” a “Profile of Fatty Acids in Commonly Used Oil,” “Approximate Smoke Points of the Most Commonly Used Cooking Oils,” an “Additives Directory,” an “Ingredient Buying Guide” showing equivalents in various metrics, a list of “Emergency Substitutions” for the cook who discovers he or she needs an ingredient that isn’t available, a list of “Common Measurements and Equivalents,” “Approximate Metric Equivalents,” charts for converting to and from metric, temperature equivalents and terminology, conversion times for microwave ovens based on wattage, adjustment guide for high-altitude baking, a chart displaying “Approximate Boiling Temperature of Water at Various Altitudes,” a list of “Comparative Baking Pan Sizes,” a chart showing “Candymaking Temperatures and Cold-Water Tests,” a 14-page “Herb and Spice Chart,” detailed diagrams for specific cuts of lamb, pork, veal, and beef. There’s a list of “Consumer Information Sources” about specific foods and wines and a bibliography that comes to thirteen pages. Whew!

Quotations: On Food

A Meal Without Wine Is Breakfast

—Title of a book by Sharon Tyler Herbst

Sources for Quotations about Food and Beverages

What Is It about Licorice?

I like it. The women in my life (my wife and two daughters) don’t. I’m OK with that, but I don’t get it. For me, “licorice” means licorice, pure and simple. “Black licorice” is redundant. If I offer someone licorice, I’ll say, “Would you like some licorice.” But if someone offers me licorice, it’s possible they mean “the red kind.” So I ask, what kind of “licorice”? It’s almost always “the red kind,” and I usually say, “No. Thank you anyway.” And if I am most sincerely polite, I don’t add, “By the way, that’s not really licorice.”

Experience tells me that Red Vines are the most popular of “the red kind.” That’s what the women in my life keep on hand. I’m on my own to keep a stash of the real thing.

So what’s the real thing? Well, to begin with, it’s black. And—surprise, surprise—one key ingredient is . . . licorice, or licorice extract. The substance is extracted from the root of a plant whose botanical name is Glycyrrhiza glabra. The root is believed to have medicinal uses, but it is most often enjoyed in the confection known as licorice candy.

My friend Lucas says he likes the Goodyear brand, for the ingenuity they’ve demonstrated in making tire rejects into something quasi-edible. Thanks to another friend, Kristel, my current favorite is Australia’s Darrell Lea Traditional Licorice, available at Trader Joe’s. Contrary to popular lore, licorice candy is not necessarily tough to chew. The Darrell Lea brand can be masticated with ease, because the bite-size chunks are soft. It contains no trans fats and is cholesterol-free.

The distinctive taste of real licorice derives from the use of molasses, wheat syrup, and, of course, licorice. But texture is just as important to the quality of the experience. It should be chewy, without sticking to the teeth. Bite-size pieces are the right-size pieces, filling the mouth with flavor that lasts long after the candy has been chewed up and swallowed.

Eating licorice in moderation is one of life’s simple pleasures. And Darrell Lea Traditional Licorice makes my list of Favorite Things.

To participate in an informal poll, let me know if you enjoy licorice (not “the red kind,” but the real thing), and if so, what brand you prefer.

A book about “Licorice”:

Licorice: Webster’s Timeline History 1872-2007

Description: Webster’s bibliographic and event-based timelines are comprehensive in scope, covering virtually all topics, geographic locations and people. They do so from a linguistic point of view, and in the case of this book, the focus is on “Licorice,” including when used in literature (e.g. all authors that might have Licorice in their name). As such, this book represents the largest compilation of timeline events associated with Licorice when it is used in proper noun form. Webster’s timelines cover bibliographic citations, patented inventions, as well as non-conventional and alternative meanings which capture ambiguities in usage. These furthermore cover all parts of speech (possessive, institutional usage, geographic usage) and contexts, including pop culture, the arts, social sciences (linguistics, history, geography, economics, sociology, political science), business, computer science, literature, law, medicine, psychology, mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology and other physical sciences. This “data dump” results in a comprehensive set of entries for a bibliographic and/or event-based timeline on the proper name Licorice, since editorial decisions to include or exclude events is purely a linguistic process. The resulting entries are used under license or with permission, used under “fair use” conditions, used in agreement with the original authors, or are in the public domain.

Medusa, by Michael Dibdin

A few months ago, my editor at Oxford University Press and I were talking about favorite authors of mystery fiction. I recommended John Dunning, whose novel The Sign of the Book I wrote about a few days ago. I mentioned to her that I especially like to read novels that are set in places I’ve visited or will be visiting. Knowing that I’d been to Sweden on a lecture tour, she recommended Swedish author Henning Mankell (b. 1948). She also suggested Michael Dibdin (1947-2007), creator of the Aurelio Zen series set in Italy.

I paid a visit to my local Barnes and Noble and selected one book by each author, Mankel’s Before the Frost and Dibdin’s Medusa. Before the Frost is a Kurt and Linda Wallander novel, set in Sweden. I dove into it right away and liked it well enough. My records indicate that I started it November 19, 2007 and ended December 11. Maybe I’ll write about it later.

For the Fourth of July weekend just ended, I read Medusa—mostly during odd moments when the women in my life (my wife and two daughters) were shopping or doing other things when my absence goes unnoticed. Medusa isn’t the first in the Aurelio Zen series, but that didn’t matter. The jacket cover, together with some travel experience, convinced me it was the place to start.

Two summers ago I traveled by train from Florence to Venice, then from Venice through Verona and north to the Brenner pass in the Italian alps. I spent one night in Bolzano, Italy on my way to Salzburg. The hotel, situated opposite the rail station, was a family-run outfit with a storied history. I learned from the manager’s daughter that her grandfather had moved there from Austria before World War 2. A smaller version of the hotel had been his livelihood. During the war, the main floor of the building was commandeered by Italian military forces while the family was permitted to live upstairs. The building was restored to hotel status and expanded during the years following the war.

At the end of the war, the international boundary in the extreme north of modern-day Italy was disputed. This dispute was settled at the Yalta Conference, the result of bargaining by Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt. The region differs dramatically, both geographically and socially, from the rest of Italy. It’s called the Südalpen, German for “the southern alps.” Italian is learned, but Austrian German is preferred and more commonly spoken by the people living in the area. I didn’t know most of this until my visit, and I was glad that I had casually decided to layover in Bolzano (Bozen, in German). (For a pleasing description of the peculiar culture of Bolzano, see the Washington Post article “Bolzano: German or Italian? Yes,” by Robert V. Comuto.)

The back cover of Medusa states that the story takes place in the Italian Alps. That, together with the author’s reputation with my friend, led me to buy the book. Aurelio Zen investigates a cold-case crime and, as it happens, follows the same route by train that I had taken in 2006. The conditions were nearly perfect for a satisfying read. They would have been only slightly better if I had discovered the book about the time I was entering Austria from the south on my earlier journey.

The story begins with the discovery of a comparatively well-preserved corpse by mountain climbers high in the Alps bordering Switzerland. Three different government agencies take an interest in the mystery surrounding its discovery and the cause of death. Aurelio Zen is a police investigator with the Ministry of the Interior. His assignment is to solve the original crime while also discovering the nature of the interest taken by the Ministry of Defense. Zen goes to Bolzano to observe the body and interview the coroner who had conducted the autopsy. But the body had already been taken into custody, as it were, by military officials. The reader knows there’s a cover-up even before Zen begins to suspect it.

The plot is narrated with suitable complexity. Each section of the novel is narrated in the third person, with an omniscient perspective used for some main character in that section. Different things are going on in different places, all at the same time. So there is movement from one scenario to another to keep the reader up to speed throughout the complex progression of the whole novel. Dibdin manages the tangle adroitly.

Medusa succeeds on the level of sophisticated mystery fiction. It also reveals disparate attitudes about Italian life, or what is frequently referred to as the mysteri d’Italia. Some stereotypes are reinforced. For example, government stability in Italy is oxymoronic, and beneath the Italian facade of joyful contentment is a latent malaise that troubles the general population. There is corruption and intrigue, and hence distrust, at every turn. This is, from Zen’s point of view, “‘Italia Lite’: the new culture of empty slogans, insincere smiles and hollow promises overlaying the authentic adversarial asperity of public life” (50).

Italian words and phrases are sprinkled throughout, sharpening the reader’s sense of being in Italy. Telecomando (for remote control), belissimo, carabiniere (something like classic keystone cops, I gather, but with a military bearing), capo (a respectful form of addressing one’s superior without being too formal?); servizio, disfatta storica, magistratura, Dottore (which is what it sounds like, but used with potentially mischievous connotations), and Pronto! (a typical form of answering the phone, which apparently can be said in a tone suggesting a declaration of war—see page 73).

Some American readers may stumble over Dibdin’s use of British diction. For example, there are no flashlights in the story, but there are plenty of “torches.” “Petrol pumps” (51) are not shoes worn by women working oil derricks. I’ve never heard an American use the word “tetchy” (66). One potentially useful word is now at my disposal, though: “pollard” as a noun and “pollard” as a verb (see page 68).

There are occasional references to historical events, some of them grand, like the Versailles conference, others relatively obscure, for instance, “the bomb of 2 August 1980” (65).

Those with culinary aspirations learn that, to be worth eating, minestrone must be accompanied by fresh vegetables and high-quality olive oil and Parmesan; otherwise, a person of cultivated taste should order lentil soup with chunks of smoked bacon (45). (I would have opted for the lentil soup, in any case.)

Descriptions of place and strings of dialog are often artfully crafted. I enjoyed coming across such constructions as:

  • “. . . the only sound was the whine of the unpredictable squally breeze with fistfuls of sleet in its folds” (42);
  • “The wormholes pervading the body politic remained, but the worms had never been identified, still less charged or convicted” (65);
  • “. . . he recalled his childish fascination with this physical oxymoron: water flowing over water” (76);
  • “Whatever the outcome, it could not be worse than living in a state of perpetual uncertainty and inchoate terror” (78; maybe hell is quite literally like that?).

And how could I not appreciate Zen’s exasperation when he declares to his chief,

  • “We can’t disprove it, because they haven’t given us anything to disprove” (85)?

I’ve yet to hear a more apt description that noxious deviation that nevertheless has to be called “architecture”:

  • “the abusivo building boom of the sixties and seventies.”

Here is a clever paragraph contrasting scientific theory and religious belief:

  • “He [Gabriele Passarini] remembered having read somewhere that the difference between a theory and a belief rested not on proof but on the possibility of disproof. No matter how many observations appeared to corroborate the theory of relativity, for example, it could never conclusively be proved to be true. Its scientific respectability rested on the fact that it could instantly be proven false should contradictory evidence come to light. The same did not apply to the idea that God had created the world in six days and then faked the fossil record to suggest otherwise, which is why this amounted to nothing more than a belief. As did his fears about his own safety, he now realized.” (69-70)

and what must have been an irresistible sentence about the medieval church:

  • “The church would have banned [Halloween], . . . or at least fulminated against it.” (72)

There are other ruminations of interest. Gabriele speculates that the world used to be “hard but benign,” but now it was “soft and malevolent” (71). Zen waxes philosophical about children today, in comparison with children of a bygone era (82).

I believe I have rarely come across the word “fireworks” while reading a novel. It wouldn’t be strange if I did, unless it happened, quite unexpectedly, on the 4th of July—as it did the other day when I came to page 75. This is just one of those little inconsequential coincidences of life that seem to happen in my experience with uncanny frequency.

In addition to a larger vocabulary of Italian words, and the addition of one English word, I’ve acquired from Aurelio Zen a new trick for assisting a long-winded speaker to get to the point. Just say, politely, of course, “Yes, yes. And the upshot?” That alone is worth the price of the book.

I also learned that Giovanni Agnelli was “the creator of Fiat”—perhaps you see why the four words in italics struck me as oxymoronic when I came across them on page 92. (Finding out who started the Italian motor company is not worth the price of the book, since I don’t expect to be on any of those game shows that test your mastery of trivia.)

This novel was published in 2003, so it can’t have been intentional that the passage at the top of page 93 almost exactly parallels the campaign strategy of a chief contender for the upcoming election of a new President. But then, what politician really is “a new kind of politician”?

I recommend the book, and I’m game to try another Dibdin. Next time maybe Dark Specter, not one of Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen installments. The publisher’s description says that “a dogged Seattle detective and a horribly bereaved survivor are about to come face-to-face with their perpetrator—a man named Los, a self-styled prophet who has the power to make his followers travel thousands of miles to kill for him.” Seattle is one of my favorite cities, and the Great Northwest is my favorite region among the places I’ve visited or lived.

By now you’re thinking, “Yes, yes. And what’s the upshot?” Just this—if you ever find yourself traveling by train between Venice and Florence and between Venice, Verano, and Bolzano, I suggest taking this novel, Medusa, along with you. You’ll enjoy it, and your trip will be more meaningful than if you studied the pages of a travel guide.

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