With winter upon us, now is the perfect time to get cozy with a pile of books. The latest in our eco-reads book review series is a great food and cooking reference – the Whole Foods Companion.
Whole Foods Companion is a dip-your-toe-in book rather than a cover-to-cover book: it’s great for delving into when you need a quick hit of information, and like any good reference or guidebook, once you’ve got a page open you’ll inevitably be delighted by the other random bits and pieces you find on the page.
It’s set up like a dictionary or encyclopedia – an alphabetical listing of ingredients, organized into groups by type (fruits, grains, spices, etc.).
While that description may lead you to believe this volume is dry and staid, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s charmingly written and chock-full of helpful and interesting information.
Each foodstuff has several sections: a general introduction, tips on selection and storage, culinary uses, and health benefits. Broader entries, like apples or peas, provide details on different varietals. By-products (peanut butter in the entry for peanuts, say) are also included whenever they are relevant.
The entries are rounded out with all kinds of whimsical extra snippets: mythological tales (the Roman god Mercury had a wand made of hazel, “whose touch would enable men to express their thoughts through words”), bits of history (did you know that the Egyptians worshiped the kidney bean because it resembles a testicle?), and quotes (everyone from Thoreau to 18th century botanists) turn what might otherwise be a practical quest to figure out what to do with the mysterious root veggies in your CSA box into a half-hour’s worth of diversion.
Entries are accented with old-fashioned line drawings; while photos would have kicked up the book’s visual appeal somewhat, keeping the book in black-and-white also keeps the price down.
All in all, this is an excellent book for anyone that wants to learn more about food and ingredients. Whether you like to geek out on culinary history or want to finally learn how to pick the best eggplants at market, you’ll be glad to have this one on your shelf.
Whole Foods Companion (revised edition)
Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004
For more eco-reads in our series, see:
‘Field Notes from a Catastrophe’ by Elizabeth Kolbert, a Review
Carlo Petrini’s Slow Food, A Review
Fred Pearce’s “Confessions of an Eco-Sinner” on Where Stuff Comes From