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book review | Food & Drink

‘The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink’ by John Mariani

Natalya Balnova

Hello, people. I come to you from the late ‘90s. They tell me it’s 2013 now. I honestly don’t know how I got here. Maybe it’s a side effect of that whole Y2K thing? Anyway, as you can imagine, I’m pretty hungry. Can you point me toward some chow?

‘Scuse me? Um, I haven’t eaten in like 15 years. I’m not going to a food truck. I’m not looking for Aujourd’hui or anything, but I really don’t need to get listeria poisoning from a lukewarm hot dog. Isn’t there a good restaurant nearby?

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Yelping? No, I haven’t tried yelping. I thought I’d just ask you in a normal tone first. How about that place over there? It was on “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives”? Is that a good thing? I’ll just take a look at the menu. Whoa! Everything comes with pickles. Except for the burger, which — funny typo — the menu says is $18. Hang on. If the food is served on such small plates, why does the chef recommend I share it? And what’s with all the local ingredients? Did Y2K mess up shipping?

The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink: With over 500 recipes for American classics

John F. Mariani
Number of pages:
564 pp.
Book price:

Things have clearly changed since I was sipping Zima, drizzling balsamic vinegar on everything, and eating nothing but molten chocolate cake and crème brûlée for dessert (Actually, I just looked at a dessert menu. I guess not everything has changed.). I feel like I took the red pill. Have you seen “The Matrix” yet?

Back in my day, there was a book, “The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink” by John Mariani who writes about food and restaurants for the likes of Esquire. It had just been updated. I wish there were something like that now to get me up to speed, but I gather you all don’t use books anymore.

You Googled it? OK, that’s a verb now. Anyway, thank you, World Wide Web. There’s a brand new edition of this encyclopedia. (Encyclopedia? Hahahahaha. That’s old-school, baby. Even I’m pretty sure the thing will be out of date as soon as it’s printed. Does it at least come with a companion CD-ROM?)

Let’s take a look. This book is amazing! It has entries for everything from “abalone” to “zwieback,” plus more than 500 recipes for classic American dishes and drinks. And I’m learning a lot. I can’t believe Gourmet magazine is gone, travelers actually pay extra for airplane food, and Martha Stewart went to jail. I could use a “Kentucky breakfast” right about now (entry: “A colloquial slur defined as ‘three cocktails and a chaw of terbacker’ (1882)”).

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Apparently the term “foodie” rose, fell, and expanded in ways I never heard of. “Around 2008, the terms ‘foodie hipsters’ or ‘hipster foodies’ and ‘food dude’ came to mean foodies who sought out new foods, ethnic eateries, and avant-garde chefs, as well as places that had the best hamburgers, pizza, and ethnic foods,” according to Mariani.

There are locavores (entry opposite “logger slang”), which explains why all your menus name-check farms. And there’s molecular cuisine, although the tide of foam seems to be subsiding. Sorry I missed that.

Pop-up restaurants sound like fun, although the entry is perfunctory; the adjacent blurb for “pope’s nose” warrants more ink. And the “restaurant” entry tells me dining out has become more casual and moved to cheaper neighborhoods; apparently the average American eats out five times a week. That’s a lot.

Thumbing through this encyclopedia, it seems much has changed but more has stayed the same. The book’s focus is the historical and the mundane (which isn’t to say, necessarily, the uninteresting). Mariani tells us about cobblers, cod, and credit cards, margarine, margaritas, and mawmouth (“[e]ither of two freshwater fish of the American South — the warmouth (Lupomus gulosus), first in print in 1839, or the calico bass (Pomoxys sparoides), in print in 1890”). There are pages on ice cream and intriguing explanations of how international cuisines have grown and changed in America. (Indian got a boost in the ’70s, thanks to the Beatles’ travels and the counterculture movement; the first Chinese recipes for a non-Chinese audience appeared in 1895 in Good Housekeeping.)

But I’m still confused about the food truck thing, and there’s no entry here to clear it up, although there is one for “food court.” And what is with the pickles? This encyclopedia talks about Henry J. Heinz, chow-chow, and piccalilli, for which there is a recipe. The word dates in print to 1758, we learn, when it appeared as “Paco-Lilla.” Good to know. But there isn’t anything about a resurgence of interest in pickling.

I gather food television is more about competition than cooking these days, but I don’t find much on that either. And apparently mixing cocktails is now considered a craft. Eric Schlosser is here, but no Michael Pollan, Alice Waters but no Ruth Reichl. There’s nothing on Chowhound or Yelp! (I know about these things because I Googled them. How do you like me now?) There is, however, a dynamite section on “cowboy slang,” which will serve me well when I’m chasing whistle berries and swamp seed with a pair of overalls.

As someone from 1999 who has just arrived in late 2013, I can tell you there is a need for a current, updated “Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink.” There is so much to learn. I like this book, but I’m also going to have to do my own supplemental research. Does anyone have a VCR and tapes of “Top Chef” I can borrow?

Devra First can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.

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