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!

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