Hey, Fromage Obsessive
The right food-snob reference book for you.
It gets ever harder to be a snob these days. Take food: It used to be a simple familiarity with Valrhona chocolate or a decent recipe for pad Thai could convince companions that you were an alpha in the food realm. Now, however, what was once esoteric food knowledge has trickled out of the subcultural creeks and into general culture. So, to help you take your food knowledge to the next level, David Kamp, who wrote last year's savvy history of the American "food revolution," The United States of Arugula, and who's also sought to define the film- and rock-snob subcultures, has partnered with Marion Rosenfeld to put together a little book called The Food Snob's Dictionary.
Part Preppy Handbook, part Dictionary of Received Ideas, and quite funny throughout, the Food Snob's handbook doesn't so much seek to define individual terms, like poulet de Bresse (the esteemed French chicken) or induction cookers (the electromagnetic cooktop), as define how such terms can be used to score points against other snobs or food-loving novices. Take a line from the FSD's definition of "nouvelle cuisine," the French food movement of the 1960s and '70s: "Snobs love to clear up the misperceptions that nouvelle chefs favored tiny portions and rejected cream-based sauces, noting that it was flour-based sauces that nouvelle-ers shunned."
As such, the FSD is a great starting point for would-be snobs. But, of course, the book itself is a symptom of the very popularization of food culture from which food devotees retreat. And so, here are a few other reference manuals to consult as the watering holes of today's snobbery become increasingly crowded.
Nine times out of 10, when you are lectured on food history or science, the pontificator is paraphrasing Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking—a wordy and scientifically minded encyclopedia on food chemistry, history, sociology, and biology. McGee is cited in the FSD as a "food-science god," which is pretty much true.
For a similar science-y approach to food (but in terser dictionary form), it is hard to beat the Oxford Dictionary of Food and Nutrition,which defines a mind-blowing range of food and drink terms that reach beyond the restaurant-focused zeitgeist and into nutritional science and food manufacturing terms. Entries will please would-be molecular gastronomists, like the one for an ultrasonic homogenizer—a "high-speed vibrator used to cream soups, disperse dried milk …stabilize tomato puree, prepare peanut butter, etc.," as well as lists of esoteric fruits and vegetables, like the pitanga, aka the Surinam cherry.
Considerably more conversational in tone, and thus perhaps better fodder for cocktail conversations, is The Food Lover's Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. It's more strictly culinary than ODFN, including definitions of annoyingly vague (and amusingly dirty sounding) cookery verbs like "to mount," or "firm-ball stage." Unlike the FSD, the FLC's also got plenty of fodder for Asian-food snobs, such as an engagingly comprehensive entry on bubble tea, or zhen shou nai cha. Never underestimating the power of reverse snobbism, the FLC includes entries on down-market pleasures like Fluffernutters and Sloppy Joes as well. Similar to the FLC in its approachable prose, Michael Ruhlman's new book The Elements of Cooking, is modeled on Strunk and White's grammar guide, and through its glossary of cooking terms provides a very practical philosophy of the kitchen.