Dianne Onstad's invaluable compendium of natural eats, the thick paperback Whole Foods Companion (no affiliation with Whole Foods Market), is a must-read reference for farmers marketers, curious cooks and lovers of unprocessed foods in all their myriad forms. This is not a cookbook, but an exhaustively researched, well organized and surprisingly entertaining kitchen encyclopedia broken down into six top-level domains: fruit; vegetables; grains; legumes; nuts, seeds and oils; and herbs, spices and other foods.

The Whole Foods Companion addresses the commonplace and the exotic with equal rigor and passion. You'll learn about familiar items encountered year-round at your local growers' market, as well as international mystery foods like the Brazilian Jaboticaba, resembling a thick-skinned subacid grape, or the Asian Matrimony Vine (popularized of late in the West as the Himalayan health food goji), whose leaves, berries and roots are each harvested in turn as the seasons pass for both culinary and medicinal purposes. Virtually every entry includes generous background info, taxonomic and etymological notes, buying and cooking tips and nutritional data. Kitchen staples like cereals, citrus and oils add detailed nutrient tables that put the USDA's back-of-box labeling guidelines to shame.

Many entries feature intriguing quotes and sidebars about the lore and legend of natural foods with established histories of wild gathering or cultivation. On the peasant plant cabbage, botanical neighbor to kale, cauliflower, broccoli and brussel sprouts, Onstad writes:

The [Roman] Emperor Claudius (a glutton and a drunkard, but no gourmet) once convoked the Senate to vote on the question of whether any dish surpassed corned beef and cabbage. The Senate dutifully responded that none did.

And regarding the apothecary herb lavender:

Lavender has long had a reputation as as an anti-aphrodisiac (counterstimulant), with one old belief advocating sprinkling lavender on your head as an aid in maintaining chastity. In sixteenth-century England women and men had the spicy-smelling flowers of lavender quilted into their hats to 'comfort the braines.'

Dianne Onstad's Whole Foods Companion is now in its second revised and expanded edition, with a comprehensive glossary of food terms, an annotated bibliography to aid further research and a flawless index denoting both the common and taxonomic names of the foods within.

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