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The Food Lover’s Companion, Definitely

February 18, 2010

There are thousands upon thousands of coobooks and food reference books out there, a fact that makes us all very happy in general.  Choice is good, selection is good, different approaches are good.  But sometimes one book grabs an area of the food world and holds onto it like a puppy holds onto a sock.  Sharon Tyler Herbst’s Food Lover’s Companion is one such book, first coming onto the scene in 1990, and several editions later, still the book to own for culinary query immediate gratification.

When I started as a cookbook editor the very same year this book was published, this chunky brick of a book found itself a corner on my desk, and never left… and every other food editor I knew would say the same.  What exactly is dashi?  Cherry Herring?  Lecithin? A pomelo?  I poured over this little volume like it was a Magic 8 ball.

Here’s how you know a book is great.  When you have one at work, and buy another copy for home.  Out of sour cream?  No problem (substitute plain yogurt or  ¾ cup buttermilk or plain yogurt + 1/3 cup melted butter).  How do you convert Celsius to Farenheit? (multiply Celsius by 1.8, then add 32).  British recipe calling for “sultanas”?  They’re golden raisins.  How much sauerkraut is in a 1 pound package?  2 cups.  How much cooked rice does 1 cup of raw brown rice make? 3 ½ to 4 cups.

And on and on and on.

Sharon Tyler Herbst died in 2007, having written 16 books, many in collaboration with her husband Ron Herbst (including this last edition of Food Lover’s Companion), all of them friendly food-and-drink reference works.  This was the kingpin of the bunch, and if you don’t yet know of it, you will be very happy to make its acquaintance.  And if you want to raise a glass to the woman who spent a day and a half writing the entry for bananas (file that under “t” for “thorough”), then just click here for a slew of drink recipes from two of Sharon’s other books, and toast the book that defined definitions.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. richard permalink
    February 20, 2010 7:59 am

    This book is always within my grasp.

  2. February 26, 2010 9:18 am

    Sharon was like a rockstar at culinary conferences (IACP) and I was able to catch a glimpse of her before she passed. WHAT a fabulous book this is. I used it in my bibliography of Good Friends Great Tastes because there are so many obscure cooking references that beginners and even seasoned cooks need to understand. This is a fabulous gift for kitchen showers and culinary team buildings. Thank you to Sharon and Ron Herbst! A book like this that is incredibly thorough would be hard work!

  3. amschrader permalink
    March 2, 2010 11:52 pm

    This book sounds great! But in the age of the internet, when I can easily convert grams to ounces on my phones, how relevant do you think it still is? I for one keep my laptop in the kitchen just so I can check things like this.

  4. Katie Workman, Editor-in-Chief permalink*
    March 3, 2010 8:12 am

    Hi, amschrader,

    You are of course correct that there are plenty of sources on the internet for answers to these questions, but a few points come to mind, in favor of Sharon’s book.

    One, it’s an amazing resource with answers to so many different kinds of questions, delightful one stop shopping — you don’t have to hunt around the internet for various sources for various kinds of queries. A big time saver.

    Two, it’s authoritative and reliable, and really well written. Many web sites (like us!) get their material from very reliable, well-researched sources (in our case, all of our recipes come from cookbooks, so you know they are written by professionals, edited, tested, copyedited and so forth – they have been through many layers of professional hands) — but some don’t. I would hate to have the wrong info on substitutions for buttermilk, for instance, and waste a lot of time and $$ on a recipe that flops because the advice was faulty — The Food Lover’s Companion is really reliable.

    Lastly, even though we of course are huge proponents of the internet, sometimes there’s just something about a book. And then when it gets dog eared and splattered from years of use, with certain pages reflecting lots of love and attention, it becomes a favorite book, which is pretty special.

    A long-winded answer to a very good question! Thanks for writing.

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