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.
For the truly aspirational snob, one must look at the late enlightenment reference works by historic epicures. Kamp and Rosenfeld rightly mention Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, “the French lawyer-statesman (1755-1826) whose obsessive interest in eating well compelled him to write the Snob urtext The Physiology of Taste,” in the FSD. One should not overlook, however, his contemporary, Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reyniere, who, in his eight-volume Gourmand’s Almanac (1803-12), sounds like a contemporary regional-food fetishist as he describes the education of a young gourmand: “[H]e (the elder gourmand) teaches him Geography through gourmandise, which is truly enchanting. Thus instead of asking what is the capital of Alsace, he asks him what town is famous for its carp, its salmon, its goose liver pate, and its crayfish? The young man responds Strasbourg, in fact the only town blessed with all four of these specialties.” Famed novelist Alexandre Dumas also left behind the gargantuan manuscript for his Dictionary of Cuisine, which was written with a novelist’s eye for atmosphere: “In Rheims, before the first table napkins came into use, hands were wiped on hanks of wool that were neither new, nor newly washed.” Excerpts from all three gourmands are provided, in English, in Denise Gigante’s Gusto: Essential Writings in 19th Century Gastronomy (with extra snob points for its intro by Harold Bloom).
The mother of all contemporary food reference books—an opinionated encyclopedia rather than a dictionary, comes from Oxford as well— The Oxford Companion to Foodfrom the late, great Alan Davidson (who’s strangely missing from the FSD) and his cohorts. In his many scholarly projects, Davidson helped make arcane food knowledge a respectable academic and high-amateur pursuit. Though his writing is eager and sensualist in tone, rather than outwardly lofty and snobbish, the OCF provides invaluable trivia to the working snob—entries on obscure meats “the cane rat may reach a length, not including tail, of nearly 60 cm, and provides a substantial amount of good meat,” to near-forgotten cookery writers like Hannah Wolley, “the first woman to author a cookery book in English.” While the 1,000-plus-paged OCF is broad-ranging, the true snob can appreciate the micro-focus of Davidson’s seafood dictionaries, Seafood of South-East Asia, Mediterranean Seafood, and North Atlantic Seafood, which are essential for piscine one-upmanship among food snobs. They catalog the fish of each region with unremitting diligence and also rate each fish on its subjective culinary quality.
Overall, the most snob-useful reference books are, like Davidson’s seafood dictionaries, narrow in their focus. In order to truly distinguish oneself as a food snob today, it helps to specialize. Food is too big a subject and has become too popular to simply know a little bit about everything. At your disposal, then, are books like Kazuko Masui and Tomoko Yamada’s revered illustrated field guide to French cheeses, which obsessively documents the terroir and mating calls of the most obscure fromages in the country. Its photographic palate of ivory, cream, and tan is a minimalist’s dream. For the historical food enthusiast, there is Kitchen Utensils: Names, Origins, and Definitions through the Ages, by Phillips V. Brooks, which, through pictures and definitions, helps you tell a sugar nipper (for cutting loaf sugar into lumps) from a muffineer (a perforated container for sprinkling salt or sugar on muffins). And for food snobs who like to maximize their scientific input, there is Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor, a compendium of encyclopedic entries by Hervé This, one of the prime movers and shakers in the molecular gastronomy movement (and mentioned in the Food Snob’s Dictionary). It’s rich material for the snob: In one essay, he describes an experiment that demonstrates how different reblochon cheeses taste, depending on whether they’re made from the milk of cows on a north- or south-facing meadow.
It may seem absurd to think that anyone would want to know such minutiae, but in any erudite world, specialized knowledge is the stuff of authority. Years ago, I learned this when I started innocently attending meetings of the Culinary Historians of Southern California. I met a man in, yes, a bow tie, who asked me about my area of expertise. I told him I cooked at a restaurant and liked learning about food. He responded, perhaps a little amused by my blockheaded generalism, “Oh. I smoke meat.” I felt incredibly bland as I soon realized other members of the group included a medieval Arabic cookbook specialist and a junior league cookbook expert.
Kamp and Rosenfeld’s own snobbery, like mine, I must admit, seems to range toward the Berkelified, farm-centric Northern California food world—the galaxy consisting of past and present Chez Panisse suppliers like Acme Bread Company—and rotates around Alice Waters. The California turf might be pretty crowded territory, but there is still plenty of other snob glory to be grabbed—in the distant past, in the outer reaches of Asia, and the street foods of Latin America, even in the less-storied regions of Italy. Go narrow and go deep, and you’ll find your own snob universe soon enough.