Friday, April 17, 2015

Subtleties&Stuffe The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. 

Edited by Darra Goldstein. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. ISBN: 978-0-19-931339-6. [Hardback, 888 pages. [920 pages with introductory pages]; 157 images. 32 pages of color plates. Index: pp. 831-888.]

I don’t often comment about the subject headings chosen for reference books, but in the case of The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, I’ll make an exception. The subject heading listed on the verso of the title page reads: “1. Sweeteners- Encyclopedias.” Worldcat adds the additional heading of “Sweeteners.” For the ebook edition, Worldcat also adds “TECHNOLOGY & ENGINEERING / Food Science.” None of these subject headings adequately captures the essence of the volume or does it justice.

The Companion is a massive encyclopedia devoted to sweets and items made of sugar. This is not a cookbook; it does not contain recipes. It’s a reference volume dedicated to providing informative entries. Think countries, regions, cane sugar, maple sugar, beet sugar, cakes, candies, chocolates, cookies, bonbons, ice creams, desserts, famous confections, famous confectioners and candy makers past and present, pastries, subtleties, sugarplums, and spoons full of sugar. I’m not kidding. Films and songs mentioning sweets, including Mary Poppins, are covered in separate appendixes along with another pair of appendixes just for museums and famous pastry shops. 

The entries vary in length from a mere paragraph to several pages. References are helpfully included at the end of the entries. As one would expect, there is lots of information here, although I have already noticed certain topics could have been expanded into earlier historical material. The topic of “Icing” is one, for example, where there are earlier sources than the ones cited in the entry. Overall, there are very good entries and even great entries though on a number of interesting topics. Ivan Day, C. Anne Wilson, Andrew Smith, and Laura Mason are among the 265 experts who contributed material. The volume’s editor Professor Darra Goldstein was the founding editor of the award winning Gastronomica and is presently the Willcox and Harriet Adsit Professor of Russian at Williams College. She has done an excellent job.

While The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets is pretty marvelous, having a copy will not eliminate the need for The Oxford Companion to Food or access to an online Oxford English Dictionary or similar foreign language dictionaries for tracing terms and quotations. 

There is a Kindle version of The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, which is also available now through Amazon. I downloaded a copy of that version prior to the release of the hardback and spent several hours reading sections. Dipping into it via the electronic version has pluses and minuses. One can keyword search but since the book is very long, it takes an extended while for the search to download. Fast Internet is a plus in using the volume. You can click and search on highlighted terms and move easily from entry to entry instead of turning entry to entry as in a book. I have to say I prefer the hardback edition.

For my research, The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets is an essential reference text. I am not sure about recommending that everyone else plunge in and drop $36 on the Kindle version or at least $44 on the hardback. It's currently priced at $65, so seek a discount. I don't know how many bookstores will carry it, so it may be hard to see a copy prior to purchase. Larger libraries should buy it but readers may have to nudge them.

All in all it's a really good read and a reference source that readers should be aware of. So what should the subject headings be? Well, how about Sugar, Sweets, Confections, Pastries, Food, etc.? They are all covered in this definitive companion guide. Highly recommended.

Announced publication was May 1.

Short Blog post and podcast about the book

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