Sunday, June 28, 2009

New in Paperback: The Oxford Companion to Italian Food by Gillian Riley

If you were to ask cookbook aficionados for a list of the ten most influential cookbooks of all time, I’m betting that most all of them would include Larousse Gastronomique somewhere on that list. First published in 1938, that book is much more than a cookbook. It is an encyclopedia of gastronomy from the French perspective. You don’t necessarily read Larousse, you graze it, browsing at various entries as your make your way, in leisurely fashion, from back to front, or however else you want to enjoy it. You’re safe in knowing that, every time you go in, you’re going to take something new out. It’s not so much a cookbook, then, as an amazing, never-ending literary lunch.

In many ways, all of these things also describe The Oxford Companion to Italian Food (Oxford) very well. In many ways, it’s set up just like Larousse, with two columns per page of smallish type with the entries arranged alphabetically. And so we learn about Burrida, (“… a Sardinian way of serving fish like skate…”) Burrino, (“a kind of butter of ghee”) and Butter all on a single page.

Those accustomed to glossy cookbooks featuring fashionably out-of-focus photos of food and pride in the few words required to share a recipe might take some time becoming acclimated to The Oxford Companion to Italian Food. Because this is more than a cookbook: it is, as Chef Mario Batali says in the foreword, a tour of “Italy’s rich culinary history.”

If you want to know how to make pasta, other books will likely get you there more directly. But if you also want to know how pasta came into the vernacular, how it was invented, developed and how it can variously be prepared, then The Oxford Companion to Italian Food will be the book for you.

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