I love - and am in awe - of polymaths. How I would love to have met the late, great, Alan Davidson, perhaps over a dinner of his choosing or in a ship's wardroom bar; he even looks fun in the photograph of him! A double first in classics at Oxford, a wartime Royal Navy officer, a career British diplomat and one time HM Ambassador to Laos, food expert, food writer and cook, and author of this wonderful book, some twenty years in the writing. What a man - what a book! What a legacy to the world to leave such a feast of a book as this!
Everyone who likes food should have a copy in the kitchen at home; refer to it when you want to know more, of course, but pick it up and find a titbit regarding the meal that you are preparing and cooking - there's always a spare moment or two! Your guests will enjoy the morsel you give them, I am sure. But, when on your own, occasionally let this book be your dining companion; I can guarantee that it will be more of a friend, over the years, than some of the people you have broken the fast with!
Take this book as a gift to your favourite cook and give a copy to your children. Every kitchen and galley should have a copy, as should every maître-chef, sous-chef and bon oeuf, every catering office and catering college classroom. It's an ideal prize, too, for first class chefs.
This second edition is even better than the first. It's still heavy, but it's still light reading, for it is so well-written; like the author surely enjoyed his food, you get the sense that he enjoyed researching and writing this magnum opus. I certainly enjoy digesting it. There are some 72 new entries in this edition; I just hope that not one of the entries in the first edition has been removed so as to find room in this second course. The range of entries is astonishing, with titbits for every food person, and the setting of each page is as pleasing as a well-laid dining table. There are stories and vignettes galore; the author's ability to illustrate food in all its appetising varieties seems endless. A comprehensive bibliography and helpful index are in the green section at the back, and the maps of the "Columbian Exchange" and "selected global food migrations" are an excellent addition.
The list of entries for each alphabetical section is just a new design feature but it's useful, too, for tempting the reader to browse topics at random. Indeed, this design feature should be extended in the next edition to provide a comprehensive list of the contents of each alphabetical section; it would be very helpful in such a voluminous book.
Not copiously illustrated, the drawings by Soun Vannithone, are nevertheless very good indeed. I would love to have seen photographs of the principal vegetables and fruits, growing naturally, growing in cultivation, as picked, as sold in the market and as prepared for cooking, but perhaps that would send the price of the book to that of a Michelin-star restaurant meal.
Let me give you a taster of the range of subjects covered. I must necessarily ration this list to just a few appetisers - I want to leave you hungry for more, but that is easy enough as there are, all told, some 2,711 headwords in the book! Try this alphabetical soup for starters: Afternoon tea; Albatross; Barm brack; Blewit; Char; Custard; Dab; Dripping; Easter foods; Escoffier; Figgy pudding; Film and food; Gallimaufrey; Golden syrup; Haleem; hungry (well it's not a headword in the book, truth be told (though Hungary is), but if you are hungry then go and raid your larder - and, later, raid your piggy bank and buy this book, so you can pursue Imitation foods; Inuit cookery; Jelly and Junket through to Washing up; Yabby; Yam; Zakuski and Zuppa inglese!
I wanted to give Alan Davidson's banquet of a book some six stars, not five; how could anyone give it less? If food is the new religion, then this is surely the new bible. And, if I were allowed one book only, then this would have to be it but sadly not, of course, to take with my eight discs to that BBC radio Desert Island (along with The Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare), as it would be make one even more hungry and thus more likely to try to escape!
On 17 March 2010, BBC4 televised a documentary called "The Man Who Ate Everything" - a one-hour personal portrait of Alan Davidson (1924-2003): it was a wonderful tribute to this great man.