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Sometimes I think I've been so dulled by the convenience of them Internets that I forget that the best research tools are the heavy, fiber-based ones that take up space just over my shoulder. It has happened often enough after Googling myself to a dead end (cig kofte, anyone?), that I've wasted precious time despondently drooling over the keyboard before remembering that my hefty Oxford Companion to Food has rarely let me down. First published in 1999, Alan Davidson's 912-page OCF was 23 years in the making and by cracking it open you run the risk of losing yourself in a proto-hypertextual labyrinth of obscure and fascinating food info. Its a witty read too. You'll have to pry it from my cold, dead fingers.
Last May Oxford followed up the massive, two-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (which, at $250, was and still is out of my budget) with the affordable Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. Edited by Andy Smith (keynote speaker at Saturday's sausage symposium) and written by over 200 contributors (including a number of Chicagoans), the Companion doesn't have the consistently pleasing prose style of the OCF, but it is a grand and valuable reference, full of important history. There are biographies (Louis Szathmary, Martin Yan), corporate histories (Kraft, Sonic), entries on indigenous dishes (Indian pudding, whoopie pies) synopses of political and social issues (obesity, NAFTA), and tons of entertaining ephemera. Did you know cowboys used to refer to sweet potatoes as "music roots" because of the particular audible digestive effects they produced?
Oxford's working on a whole series of these reference tomes--Southeast Asian, British, Chinese, French. The Oxford Companion to Italian Food comes out in November.